Hard to Win Back Hijacked Schools

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.cls

source:theneworleansadvocate.com

New Orleans    One of the ongoing crises of the 21st century thus far has been the struggle to control schools with all sides of this massive political and cultural war pretending and presuming that they are best capable of speaking for children. Schools have been batted about like ping pongs. Some school districts have been taken over by city mayors, Chicago being the best example, and others by the state in Michigan, Arkansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, and elsewhere empowered by the Bush passage of No Child Left Behind. The so-called “charter school” movement has controversially allowed public schools to be run by private companies, some for-profit and some nonprofit, in many districts around the country with various degrees of accountability and a contentious argument over the results. Foundations from Gates to Walmart to Eli Broad and others have put their beaks deeply into the mess funding pilots, lawsuits, and various initiatives to unwind the role of teacher unions. The short conclusion of years of these struggles is undoubtedly that no one has really won, few are happy, and it’s still “god save the child.”

One thing that should be clear though is that two things speak to the foundation blocks of almost everyone’s view of America: free public education and direct election of local officials. The “privatization” of many public schools through the charter “movement” challenges the guarantee of education and the accountability of elections of public officials empowered to hold charters accountable, since they create in often mysterious and opaque ways, a separate governance structure at arms’ length from the voters and taxpayers, more often than not populated by the appointment of friends and family of principals and charter operators. Even more unsettling is the loss of local democratic control of schools when the state takes over a system. Lawsuits are still raging in Little Rock after the state was prodded to take over their system despite the fact that only a couple of schools were failing. Detroit school parents and the district are suing the State of Michigan for mismanaging the system and starving it of resources under its management. The Supreme Court in Kansas has been at loggerheads with the state legislature and governor there for starving the school system of resources.

Then there’s New Orleans, the largest charter pilot in the country in the wake of the state seizure of schools after Katrina from the local school board. Now ten years later with a new Democratic governor in office supported by the teachers’ union, married to a teacher, and not a fan of charter schools and appalled by the poor success rate of the voucher program, there have finally be a flurry of different bills that would return all the schools to the taxpayers and voters of New Orleans. That should be good news, but in these days and times, it’s not so easy to claw back schools once they have been hijacked and pirated away. Close inspection of many of the bills, supposedly returning the schools, finds numerous escape clauses and buried mechanisms seeking to allow many of the charters to ostensibly be part of the school district and under the fiscal and political control of the elected school board, while continuing to be totally unaccountable. The bill being reported as closest to passage trickles the schools back almost on a trial basis with ten the first year and then more over several years until they are all returned to local control.

At the hearing a spokesperson for one of the larger charters, Firstline, wanted to make sure they could go back to state control if somehow “things didn’t work out.” The unbridled arrogance of entitlement and contempt for the democratic process of local school control and the property tax dollars of local citizens that pay the bills won’t be so quickly ended given the fact that the tug of war on even our most basic principles is still raging. Where people simply ought to be ashamed of themselves, they have ridden the high horse so far and long over the last ten years that they have lost sight of any solid ground where they might have stood. Meanwhile politicians, currying contributions and favor, join in the conspiracy to coopt the process without a shed of embarrassment either.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Painful Tragedy of the Digital Divide

computers_0Little Rock    For more almost 25 years, Local 100 United Labor Unions has represented school support workers mostly in Texas and Louisiana from Head Start to high school from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria workers and janitors. Most of our work is concentrated in the cities now, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Little Rock, because the members’ dues can afford the infrastructure there, but every month we still get regular dues checks from our members at the outposts of local.

About this time of year when winter lingers and spring is pushing forward in this part of the country, I used to join Orell Fitzsimmons, 100’s Texas State Director, for what we called our “fence mending” tour. I would meet him in Houston and then we would drive to Corpus Christi, meet with Willie Fleming there, and then stay in some cheap motel along South Padre Island before we went through our school districts along the Rio Grande Valley before heading back north toward San Antonio and back around to Houston. Sometimes we would stop and take a picture of Texas state highway 100 on the way to Donna to visit our members in the school district there before doubling back to McAllen, Pharr, McAllen, and Brownsville. Everything in south Texas is a long ride.

The FCC is voting soon on a Band-Aid, but essential program to expand “lifeline” funds collected from the big telecoms to offer increased access to broadband internet to lower income families. If we were really serious about attacking inequality we would do a whole lot more, including forcing these public utilities to make all internet affordable to all families in their homes as a basic necessity, but at least we’re doing a little something-something.

Forty percent of the families in South Texas where we used to fence mend do not have access at home to the internet. Looking at a picture in the New York Times of children standing outside a schoolhouse in McAllen, one of our old Texas school districts, so that they could download homework assignments from a school’s wireless hotspot, is just about enough to bring tears to my eyes from the rage boiling my brain. Reading about a young girl in the Donna Independent School District, that we know like the back of our hands, who rides a bus 3-hours a day so that she can use the Wi-Fi on the bus to keep her grades up is tragic. Reading about another 17-year old girl who finishes her after-school job in Pharr and then has to go to a friend’s house to use the internet in order to get assignments in before the midnight deadline that are required to be submitted on-line just about sends me to the street to scream.

Why are we not doing better for these children? Why are these school districts not paying a janitor a couple of extra dollars to keep the cafeteria open for these young scholars to do their homework until 9PM or even later? Why are teachers so brutally insensitive to the children they see eye-to-eye across their desks? What kind of casual cruelty is becoming part of the DNA of our society? And, that’s downstream, when so much of the problem is upstream in corporate suites and politicians offices.

The Rio Grande Valley is not an exception either. More than 30% lack internet access in New Orleans, Detroit, and other broke-ass cities, that are also not surprisingly majority-minority cities. 25% of library users now in cities according to surveys find their patrons coming to use the computers and internet, yet how many are open the hours that students need?

Half-steps are probably better than standing still, but we need a full-on march to deal with the digital divide and the inequality it advances so clearly for so many struggling so hard.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Locating Housing for the Poor: Good Intentions, Expediency, and Living with the Consequences

Robert Moses, seated at left in 1959, used his position as head of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance to mass-produce thousands of units of public housing, often near the shoreline.

 Quito    One of the ironic outcomes of recent disasters, whether New Orleans or now New York, is that the public, policy makers, and politicians are finally forced to reckon with where the poor are, and often, where they have put the poor in ways that are hard to escape.  In a smaller way this is true of politics and elections as well, as we have recently seen in the sudden realization of the Republican Party that there are a whole, whopping lot of people out in America that don’t look or think like them.   Like disasters, democracy is an equally transforming experience, as I am also seeing daily in Quito and throughout Ecuador, as new and old parties try to calculate their appeal and power in places they do not know and with people they do not completely recognize because they are foreign to their daily experience.

In New Orleans ignoring the failure of public protection and the levee system, many areas that flooded were in places like the 9th Ward where land had at one time been cheap enough to allow African-American families to buy and build or where swamps had been filled sufficiently to allow developers to create cheaper land for housing expansion as the city grew.  In Quito or Mexico City or Lima, poorer and lower waged workers, immigrants, or migrants moved to where there was land, squatted, and tried to make the best of it, until cities were slowly forced to deal with the burgeoning populations and politicians were forced to figure ways to deliver to leverage their support. 

In New York an interesting piece today in the Times, “How the Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor,” by Jonathan Mahler, looks at the role of legendary power broker and public developer, Robert Moses.

The Rockaways were irresistible to Moses. Once a popular summer resort for middle-class New Yorkers, who filled its seaside bungalows and crowded into its amusement parks, the area had fallen on hard times when cars, new roads and improved train service made the beaches of Long Island more accessible.

Never one for nostalgia, Moses saw the Rockaways as both a symbol of the past and a justification for his own aggressive approach to urban renewal, to building what he envisioned as the city of the future. “Such beaches as the Rockaways and those on Long Island and Coney Island lend themselves to summer exploitation, to honky-tonk catchpenny amusement resorts, shacks built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living,” he said, making his case for refashioning the old summer resorts into year-round residential communities.

What is more, the Rockaways had plenty of land that the city could buy cheaply, or simply seize under its newly increased powers of eminent domain, swaths big enough to accommodate the enormous public-housing towers Moses intended to build as part of his “Rockaway Improvement Plan.” Though only a tiny fraction of the population of Queens lived in the Rockaways, it would soon contain more than half of its public housing.

In fairness of a sort, Mahler even concedes that maybe some of these re-locations might have not just been based on cheap land and eminent domain, but even “good intentions,” citing the efforts of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to clean up the slums on New York’s Lower East Side, pushing new housing towards the waterfront, which also flooded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

What interests me is not that plans go awry over time, that good intentions can create their own hells, or that concentrated high rises for the poor, the old, the infirm, and the challenged can re-ghettoize areas into new wastelands “…without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living” in the earlier words of Robert Moses, but the inability of governments, politicians, and the public to abandon their nostalgic notions of what they had hoped might be developed when they pushed the poor out of sight and fully meet the challenge of resolving the handiwork of earlier decisions and their consequences.  Without a doubt, cheap land is going to attract poorer families and poorly funded public works.  This is simply reality, regardless of the intentions, so let’s get past that.

The real problem is that whether governments push people there as in New York City or turn their heads and finally find them there in New Orleans, Quito, Lima, Mexico City, and thousands of other cities, small and large, ignorance of the government is not bliss, and the challenges created by reality have to be faced.  For want of a better way to say this, if housing is going to be separate, at least citizens and families have to be assured that it is equal.  Services have to be provided.  Transportation has to be affordable and accessible.  Jobs and work locations have to have incentives to move nearby.  Decent retail outlets have to be located in accessible areas and subsidized if necessary to ensure success.  Public schools, police, fire, health clinics and hospitals have to be built, supported, and guaranteed to perform at the same or better quality as provided anywhere else in the government’s jurisdiction.

The social contract between government and citizens cannot guarantee that there will never be mistakes or that perfection is possible, but has to warrant that every effort will be made to create equity and in simpler terms, to fix whatever is broken.  Ironically, doing so not only provides more citizen wealth, city stability and security, but on the long run saves money as countless studies have established.

Democracy encourages us to not avoid the messes we create and the problems around us because it allows people to have a voice and creates occasions where these voices cannot be ignored or silenced.  Disasters by definition are terrible and force us to stop ignoring the precarious problems we have created and reckon with the largeness of our “community” in terms of morality and human rights, easily swept aside in the hurry of everyday lives, but now no longer invisible, and recommit to the minimum standards that must be equitably guaranteed to all.

Land use is a public decision and commitment, not a matter of fate and possible fatality.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Federal Judge Holds Vouchers are Resegretation in Louisiana with More to Come

New Orleans  A federal judge in Louisiana took a hard shot to the gut to the conservative efforts to provide public money to help some parents pay for their children to escape public schools.  He called it what it was:  an effort to re-segregate the school system.  The basis of the decision was equally clear.  The judge found that the voucher effort to pay for movement to private and parochial schools was in clear violation of the long standing desegregation orders in the Tangipahoa Parish school district across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

The voucher program has moved money to more than 5500 students since being forced through the Louisiana legislature last year along with other so-called “school reforms,” most of which were meant to privatize the schools, give the state control, and re-segregate.  There are 30 more parishes in Louisiana under desegregation orders, so count on them running into court quickly.  The young gun, New Yorker running the state Department of Education swears the matter will be turned over on appeal, but that’s a long shot bet in my view.

The other artifice behind these rightwing moves has been to pretend that they were not illegally appropriating local school district tax dollars to move people from the district.  They make this argument in the face of the fact that to fund their resegregation efforts, they lower the state contribution by almost exactly the amount of money they are giving the schools as part of the state contribution to public education, thereby in effect forcing the local money to “pay” for the vouchers.  An op-ed columnist in the Baton Rouge Advocate eviscerated the Governor and his cronies several weeks ago for the transparent fraud involved in this maneuver.  Now both teachers unions in Louisiana are about to have their day in court on an identical challenge to this misappropriation.   I’d bet they will win there as well.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t work when it involves taking taxpayer money from citizens supporting the public school system to in fact destroy the very system they are funding.  This is exactly what experts like Professor Diane Ravitch have been arguing eloquently along with many, many others around the country recently as the so-called reform effort is being exposed as simple gentrification via charters, privatization at large, and a return to separate and highly unequal.

Louisiana might finally be leading the effort back to public schools thanks to the courts!

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Kristof and a Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of teaVicksburg    I’ve read a couple of Nicholas Kristof’s books with interest over the years and used to read his column in the New York Times, but largely have abandoned them in recent years as I’ve done more international organizing.  I’ve done so not because he’s exactly wrong on the issues, but it’s a matter of taste and he’s become too sanctimonious for me and too rah-rah about this and that, all of which I have come to find annoying in a way that doesn’t make we want to carry a sign, but does have me skip over his column.

I say all that not by way of apology, but grudging admiration for an extremely fair and balanced, yet nuanced and supportive column he did this week about Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, and promoter and sometimes builder of schools in Afghanistan.  I don’t know Mortenson from Adam, haven’t read the books, and don’t plan on doing so, though of course I’ve read about his work and followed the broad outlines of his efforts.  In short I don’t have a horse in this race.

Jon Krakauer, another author and another guy with experience on the mountains, and 60 Minutes do have some beef with Mortenson  and his work, and seem to have poked some large gaping holes in it including the fact that almost 60% of the money didn’t go to building schools in the last report from 2009, and that a lot of the schools don’t exist.  They clearly have horses in the race, and Krakauer who has gone after the Mormons without blinking an eye, and 60 Minutes are not folks who you would choose to have on your bad side.  Instinctively, having also read most, if not all, of Krakauer’s books, I would go with his view in a minute over almost any other protestation, so I’m betting Mortenson has real troubles that have now come to the surface fairly.

Kristof also has a fast running horse in this race having promoted in his usual enthusiastic way Mortenson and counts him as a friend and calls himself a fan.  Fair enough.

His defense was measured and effective against a bad hand and few cards in his column, and that’s what I admired.  Having been out there in the world, Kristof acknowledged there  could be big problems but stepped out from behind the normal “judge and jury” journalism posture in an amazing way saying the following:

“The furor over Greg’s work breaks my heart. And the greatest loss will be felt not by those of us whose hero is discredited, nor even by Greg himself, but by countless children in Afghanistan who now won’t get an education after all. But let’s not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”

The last line is the kicker.  It is a “walk a mile in my shoes” sentiment that has real value.  Essentially, he concedes the dude may have messed up, but that doesn’t change the record – he still built schools and created change for children – or the fact that the “reader” and most of the biscuit cookers out there who might stand in judgment haven’t done diddle.

In the “gotcha” culture of modern politics and the court of public opinion which has created so many couch potato hanging  judges, Kristof makes a contribution for his friend here by reminding people that it’s a messy world and there are messy people in it, but it’s worth the work warts and all.

I’ve often quoted a line that used to be used in interviews with judges over and over by the executive board of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO when I set with that body for many years.  One or another of the guys would quote the line of an older leader who used to explain that we interviewed the judges so that they could understand that sometimes we might want to talk to them “not only about justice, but also about mercy.”

Kristof’s plea for mercy here should be remembered when we look at many people and the imperfect but beautiful work of social change.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail