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Why Betsy DeVos is the Perfect Metaphor for Trumpamerika

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Of course Betsy DeVos was selected and approved to be the Secretary of Education.  She donated millions of dollars to the republicans that voted for her. That is really all that matters.  Politics aside, she was the perfect pick.

She failed to turn in her paperwork.  Failed to do her homework.  Failed the interview.  And even failed to get through the door at the first public school she actually tried to enter. And while it would have been interesting to hear her explain her views on assessments and accountability and the relative value of measuring academic growth over time… it really doesn’t matter. In trumpamerika, up is down and DeVos is the ideal charlatan to jump in and privatize our public schools. Of course, she will destroy the Department of Education, but that’s the objective.

422_devos_a_630She is a product of the right-wing, evangelical Christofascists that have been percolating up through homeschool networks, school boards and community groups for decades.  She may be nuttier than hell, she may be a zealot,  but when she figures out which end of the very loud  megaphone she’s just purchased, she could be a force. And not for good. If her history is any indication, she will be the messiah of Generation Joshua and a rock star for privately-run, for-profit charters, homeschool schemes, voucher initiatives and any other vehicle to stimulate the exodus of white kids and public tax dollars out of public schools.

She will be the billionaire’s model cabinet choice. Amongst an entire team of otherwise kiss-ass, rich white men– she is simultaneously the darling of the alt right– and public enemy number 2 of the NEA.

unknownShe is inexperienced and ignorant of the office she has purchased– so she’ll fit in well with the rest of her cabinet colleagues and her boss. As the heiress to Amway, she is a symbol of unfettered greed.  She is a beneficiary of one of our nation’s most successful ponzi schemes and brings (thankfully) few transferable skills to benefit her new constituents.

Fortunately, the Constitution (like the president and his Amway heiress) is silent on education.  So most of the responsibility for our public schools falls to individual states anyway. The power for oversight, accountability, standards (including the Common Core), teacher quality, school spending are vested in them alone.   Most of the day-to-day authority to manage curriculum, instruction, student safety, professional development, school culture, organizational direction, and innovation…all fall to local schools and school districts and the real educators that actually run them.

My two schools– Mueller Charter School and Bayfront Charter High School–  are both fiscally independent organizations with our own governing body.  We sometimes ask for forgiveness but rarely ask for permission– for anything, local or otherwise. We didn’t need DeVos’s predecessors to create “El Milagro”– and we don’t need her either.

Betsy DeVos has never run any organization– let alone one with the scope and gravity of the Department of Education.  But she wasn’t selected for her business acumen or for what she actually has to offer to our schools– she’s a metaphor and she won’t have the mandate, the reach or the time to destroy our public schools.

So who will DeVos be in the short time she has before the wheels come off the trump debacle and his house of cards?

She could be a champion for children but she won’t be. In her first opportunity to stand for kids that need us the most, she already failed.

She could be an advocate for educational equity— assuring that children do not suffer in ineffective schools as a result of their zip code or their family income.  But instead of being a conduit for best practices– she will circle safely above, dropping vouchers from a helicopter.   The challenges of overcoming the effects of poverty on learning are immense.  They are well documented on this blog site.  The skills and expertise and innovation and vision and commitment required to lift achievement in low income neighborhoods do not suddenly appear simply because parents are promised a golden ticket to a private school.

She could be a trustworthy steward of federal tax dollars and ensure that they are protected for the populations for which they were intended.  Many public schools– mine included– have made huge strides in supporting children from low income communities.  But we have depended on federal funding– promised primarily through IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While less than 9% of our school funding comes from the federal government, it is critical in our service to populations with complex needs. But DeVos hinted as far back as 2001 that her world view of public education was steeped in faith-based philanthropy and the new world order: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

Never mind how we might measure that advancement.

She could leverage the power of her office to seed innovation in schools across the country- but her experience in Michigan is with for-profit charters –not to be confused with organic, community-based, student-centered charter schools that grow from the collaborative efforts of parents and teachers.  President Obama was eviscerated for having the temerity to earmark $4 billion to stimulate innovation through his Race for the Top initiative. Trump bloviates about committing $20 billion for a school voucher scheme. There is nothing innovative about schemes to accelerate white flight.

She could serve as a model of competence and an absolute commitment to the power educators have in every community.  But nothing during the senate hearings suggested she knew the first thing about what it really means to teach or to run a school. In fact her responses were void of any substance at all-  as if she had been coached to nod and smile and commit to nothing.  And so she did. And for her efforts she was approved by the republican majority who evidently thought that having the ponzi lady at the helm of the Department of Education would be ok.

She could strengthen and promote the Office of Civil Rights, which enforces federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance from her Department of Education.  She could stand up for our most vulnerable children who are bullied, tormented and victimized enough that the OCR is their last line (or only line) of defense.  She could uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and stand against discrimination on the basis of race or religion. Or she could stand for children protected by Title IX— especially youth from the LGBT community.  Or she could stand for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990if only she knew that that law too comes under her direction.

imagesShe could fight to preserve the office of Civil Rights in the face of so much conservative pressure to scrap the department altogether.  But she withered in her first test when trump’s new attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, raised the stars and bars over the US Capital building and struck down Obama’s protections for trans children in public schools.

DeVos should have learned from the courage of Sally Yates that advocating for children is not a hobby.  When you join the fight to protect them, you fucking fight with everything you have. You protect them with you words, your actions, your job…your very life. Or you stay out of the way. And that is Lesson #1 in school leadership.

Or maybe this newly appointed Secretary of Education could just stand there and do nothing but provide some buffer against a  president who is bat-shit crazy.  But of course, we’re not likely to see that either.

In speaking to a friendly CPAC audience this past week, DeVos said: “it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can and also to provide students, parents and teachers with more flexibility about how education is delivered and how education is experienced and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”

Fortunately, our children aren’t actually depending on her for protection at all.  And we don’t need permission to exercise our flexibility or autonomy.

Today we can thank the Founding Fathers for leaving public education to the states.  Betsy Devos is an empty suit.  An empty chair.  A checkbook.  A diversity pick.  A lost opportunity to actually lead.  A metaphor for the dangerous path our nation is on. The perfect choice for trumpamerika.

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Power and Privilege and the Boiling Frog

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America, the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”–A Nation at Risk, 1983

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All schools have a choice. My schools have a choice. Bayfront Charter High School and Mueller are at a familiar crossroads, and the world is not waiting. On January 20, Trump will begin to govern as he promised and we can prepare our students to compete in that game or we can soldier on—business as usual.

And as usual, we ain’t taking that chance.

Inside my building are Latinos, immigrants, girls, African Americans, LGBT kids, Moslems, Jews and children of democrats. At least that describes 99% of them. And of those, 85% qualify for the free federal lunch program on the basis of their parents’ income. They are–if we falter– the next generation’s working poor. And they are all in our new government’s crosshairs to either deport or demoralize.

America’s educational system has experienced multiple defining moments during which sweeping social or political events have led to ideological and transformational change in the direction of our schools.

Think US History 101:

In the earliest days of our country’s founding, there was a clear religious motive behind teaching kids to read. As waves of Christians colonized the new world, they brought their Bibles and handed down their favorite verses to children who were expected to spread the good news. After the Revolutionary War and the subsequent ratification of the US Constitution, our Founders banked on an “informed citizenry” to nurture and grow the new experiment in democratic governance .

Fast forward 100 years and the industrial revolution churned kids out of farms and prairie schools and into factories that prepared kids for the factories.

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Then in 1958, the Russians launched a rocket into space, and the subsequent race to the heavens was on. Sputnik scared the crap out of America’s post-WWII “Greatest Generation” who realized in the span of one evening newscast—that their kids had somehow been passed up in math and science. So the education pendulum swung to math and science with a vengeance—and schoolkids paid.

Then there was the Civil Rights era. The malaise of the 70’s. Forced desegregation and bussing and waves of white flight to suburbs and private schools. And education was the medium for maintaining the sociocultural and economic advantage that was a perceived birthright of white families.
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The ominous warning of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 unleashed the pendulum again. Reagan’s ‘rising tide of mediocrity’.

Then the Apple IIe drove a whole generation of post-Viet Nam War era teachers to ask “what am I supposed to do with an Apple IIe?” And they used them as door stops on the theory that this too shall pass.

By the early 2000’s Bush had appropriated no child left behind from the Children Defense Fund and we were awash in still another pet project of Republicanism: “back to basics” and the core belief that what we really need to do in schools is just test the hell out of kids and fire the teachers and the schools that can’t produce evidence of extraordinary achievement.

Public education. America’s whipping boy. Always something.

So now what?

George Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” has given way to trump’s straight up, bold-face racism. And our students have heard every word.

ap_77642174753What is the purpose of schooling in a trumpian culture where bluster and lies and bullying and misogyny are rewarded with keys to the White House; when shadowy election schemes and gerrymandering and voter suppression and an archaic electoral “college” are intentionally designed to undermine democracy; when in 2016 it is harder for citizens to cast their ballot then it was in the era of poll taxes and literacy requirements; when it is impossible for citizens to believe that their vote is even really counted; when half our nation considers it anarchy to remind ourselves that black lives matter?

unknownRemember the parable of the boiling frog:

If you place a frog in a pan of hot water– he’ll jump right out. But if you place that same  frog in a pan of cold water, then bring it gradually to a boil—he will be oblivious to the changing temperature. Pretty soon it’s too freaken hot to jump!

Our schools move too often like the boiling frog. They wait until it is too late to jump, and for our children, even generations at a time, the results are fatal.

One thing this past election has taught us is that our students need the skills to navigate a massive sea of propaganda and misinformation that seems to routinely persuade the adults to vote against their own best interests. They need a discerning eye that separates entertainment from “the truth”; that rejects Facebook’s brand of political discourse and revives the tradition of deep critical thinking and informed debate.

They need to compete in a workforce that demands higher levels of thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

They will need to find their generation’s “true North”. And then their voice. And then a spirit of activism which is in their DNA: empathy, vigilance, authentic patriotism, and advocacy for others.

Our kids will need the armor of resiliency– in the face of an apparent national sentiment that their success, their future…their very lives may not matter at all.

So in our school at least, at Bayfront Charter high School, EVERY student will be…

  • Ready for college whether they go there or not; and they will be
  • Equipped with the real 21st Century skills: including the ability to think, create, communicate and play nice with others; and they will be
  • Masters of technologies that are befitting of digital natives; and
  • Keen and curious observers of their community– with a depth of civic literacy and   global awareness; and finally, they will be
  • Beneficiaries of learning that is confined by neither time nor space.

In defiance of who this president promises to be, we will be proactive. The water’s on the boil… but our children rise.

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HOW PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA SOLICITED MY INPUT ON PRIORITIES FOR THE NEW SECRETARY OF EDUCATION

obama-on-the-phone2OK… so he didn’t really solicit my opinion.  I think maybe I just had a dream that I was sitting in my office talking to a couple of students when I got a phone call– totally unexpected– from President-Elect Obama.

“Dr. Riley”, he says. “It’s good to finally reach you. I know you have been busy running a pretty amazing charter school there in Chula Vista, but man, you are hard to reach.”

“Yes sir, I am usually out in classrooms so I don’t always get to take calls.”

“Well, listen, I just wanted to let you know I finished your book The Lights of El Milagro, and I really enjoyed it. You are doing some great stuff there.”

“Thank you Mr. President. I am honored. I read your books too. Mine hasn’t made the NY Times Bestseller List like yours have… but we are definitely telling our story.”

“And that’s why I wanted to talk to you. You know I have to name a Secretary of Education… right?”

“Yes sir. And no thank you I can’t leave El Milagro.”

I think he laughs.

“Well what I really want to know is what is on your wish list for the new Secretary of Education. You know, what has to happen for you to get your kids to grade level and not sacrifice the quality teaching and learning that our students and teachers deserve?”

So I think about it for a second and consider whether I am dreaming or maybe I’m getting punked by those French deejays who bamboozled Sarah Palin or maybe I have just been working too hard lately and I’m hearing voices-like President-Elect Obama’s. But sometimes you suspend judgment long enough to roll the dice. And so I did.

10-priorities“Well sir… I have Ten Items on My Wish List For The Newly Appointed Secretary of Education To Address While We Work To Overcome Circumstances Created Less By Pedagogy than by Public Policy. If you wouldn’t mind passing them along to the Secretary, I’d really appreciate it.”

“Of course. What are they?”

“Well, if we are going to provide the world class education that everyone has been talking about, here is what your Secretary of Education could do:

1. Provide health care for all of my students to address the scourge of childhood obesity, diabetes, and poor nutrition;health-care

2. Ensure that every child has access to comprehensive eye exams and appropriate interventions when they are struggling just to see– let alone to read;

3. Ensure that every child has regular dental checkups and access to highly qualified dentists so that my students’ baby teeth aren’t rotting in their heads;

4. Provide the funding support and infrastructure so that all of my students can attend preschool like the affluent kids do;

5. Create a way for every child in America to have a laptop and access to the Internet so that poor children aren’t pushed further behind by the technology divide that favors their more affluent counterparts;

6. Divert the 10 billion dollars we are currently spending every month in Iraq and re-invest in the modernization and construction of state-of-the-art school buildings in every community in America;

7. Guarantee a college education of the highest quality for all children so they are motivated to apply themselves academically;

8. Eliminate unemployment so that the parents of my students can properly provide the basic necessities for their children-food, clothing shelter;

9. Significantly raise the minimum wage so that our parents are not forever struggling against the tide…fighting the unwinnable battle to stay ahead of a runaway economy and its stunning indifference to the working poor…standardized_testing

And… let’s see… I guess this is a big one…

10. Eliminate politically motivated accountability systems that, for the most part, test our students’ ability to test while ignoring all of  their other assets: like their creativity and their critical thinking and problem solving and communication skills; and their proficiency with technology and their ability to speak in multiple languages or lead others or serve their community…”

“Sir… are you still there?”

I can hear only music in the background and I am in the foggy no-man’s-land that exists somewhere between blissful sleep and consciousness. Still, I wonder if he got my list. I wonder of his new Secretary of Education: Linda Darling-Hammond or Joel Klein or Kennedy or Powell or Weingarten or Cornell West or Rhee or you or whomever he picks– will get my list. I hope so. El Milagro is no dream and our children are depending on it.

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