Friday morning, I woke up, fed my kids breakfast, drank a large glass of water and went to the gym. A pretty typical day at my house, but when I walked outside, noticed that it was much colder than usual. On the drive to the gym, the sky was filled with dark clouds, through which slips of red sun peaked through. It was ominous. I don’t know if that was a harbinger of what was to come when I was to meet with the Secretary of Education, or just Fall in Seattle. Either way, I didn’t like what I saw.
In February, Betsy Devos, was appointed the US Secretary of Education, even though she has no background in education, except giving money to organizations that are homophobic, or anti- union, or anti public school, or all of the above. Her big thing is school choice, which is the push for students to be able to choose what schools they attend. While it makes sense that students not be relegated only to the schools in the zip code, her desire for school choice is actually an extension of Jim Crow.
School choice has its origins in white supremacy. After Brown vs the Board of Education, many schools in the South still refused to integrate their schools. To get around integration, school districts would use the vouchers that were provided, to send only white students to private schools. The black students would be denied vouchers. In Virginia’s Prince Edward County, in fact, they even managed to close the entire public school system, making it extremely difficult to get an education, if you were black. Black families that had the means to do so, moved to northern states, but those that could not, cobbled together a form of home schooling, or, in most cases, were forced to leave the school system permanently. It wasn’t until 1980 that the private schools decided to allow black students to attend. The Fuqua Academy, as it was called, only did so, so they could keep their non-profit status. The result was that only 1% of the Fuqua student body was black, though the black population of Prince Edward County was almost 40%.
In 2013, the black student body still only made up 5%, or 17, of the 363 students. Virginia was not alone, and during the 50s and 60s, white students left the public school system, to enroll in private institutions, using federal and state vouchers. In 1990, Alabama was recognized as having the greatest educational inequities, disproportionately impacting black students and students with disabilities. It was to be resolved in the state courts, but was blocked by the state attorney general. That person is now the US attorney general, and his name is Jeff Sessions. The same Jeff Sessions who reversed a policy to allow transgender students to use the school bathrooms that fit their gender identity. He also says the Department of Justice will no longer protect gay or transgender students from workplace discrimination, and that he will not seek federal oversight on police departments suspected of abuse.
But I digress…
Today, the school voucher system, promoted by Secretary Devos, targets low income students, yet some districts place no barrier on financial means. Of the students receiving school vouchers, 60% of them are white, while only 12% of students receiving vouchers are black. In 2013, those numbers were 46% and 24% respectively, so the gap has actually widened. As reported by the Century Foundation, the students that benefit mostly from school choice, are the advantaged students that are eligible, whom tend to be middle class and white. The voucher system has effectively made economic segregation increase, which is the exact opposite of its intentions, yet it is where education reformists, like Devos, tend to hang their hat.
Friday afternoon, I took my kids to the playground, in the hopes of letting them blow off steam. Also, I was afraid they were going to kill each other. There was no school and they were getting a little cabin feverish. At the playground, they had fun, and I enjoyed watching them play, in a way, only children can play: without abandon. It was still chilly and overcast outside, but I was looking forward to my dinner with Devos.
The 1000 seat dinner was to be thrown by the Washington Policy Center(WPC), a non-profit, think tank that promotes sound public policy based on free-market solutions. The WPC has been around for years and they have a large base of supporters, that come from across the entire state of Washington. The WPC focuses on solving problems with the environment, agriculture, healthcare, education, and more. The one commonality is that all of their solutions are free market based. Free market is another word for capitalism, and, as we know, capitalism is all about making that “skrilla.”
My kids and I walked back home, ate some snacks, and then I changed clothes. The dinner was labeled as “business attire,” so I had to break out my flyest gear, and put on a tie. Looking like the black Mr Rogers, with a deconstructed Afro, I jumped in my car, turned up the Led Zeppelin, and drove to Bellevue. Where else in western Washington, but Bellevue, would someone attend an event honoring Betsy Devos?
I arrived at the Bellevue Hyatt, to see several hundred people protesting the arrival of Secretary Devos. Signs ranged from the punny “IKEA has better cabinets,” to the plaintive “Fully Fund Education.” I also a couple signs that were basically just expletives. I understand their sentiments, but they lacked originality, or focus, which ended up taking away the potency of the protest.
New Secretary, Who Dis?
I took a few pictures, fist bumped some protestors, and headed towards security. To my surprise, I entered the hotel and walked to registration, without any trouble. I was repeatedly asked if I was here for the event, by different police officers, but when I told them, “yes,” they pointed me in the right direction. The first thing I noticed when I walked into the venue was that this was a very well organized event. I got my name tag and table number within seconds, with clear signage for the bathrooms, coat check, and beverages. The second thing I noticed was that the beverages were cash only. The least expensive ticket was $350, and for that amount of money, I would have liked a complimentary Coke. But, like I said, it’s about that skrilla.
I was on the early side, and walked around to read some of the literature. There were pamphlets discussing the need for transparency in how the state uses money for transportation related issues, and the need for us to reduce carbon emissions to create a greener environment. I read about the need to protect our agricultural workers and the need for more local control of government spending. I read many statements that rang true and fact based articles that supported the positions espoused by the WPC.
An hour passed while I was reading, and no one spoke to me. To be fair, I also didn’t seek conversation with anyone else. As I was taking notes about what I was reading, a woman walked up to me and asked me if I was a reporter. She didn’t say hello, or greet me, in any way. She just abrasively asked if I was a reporter. I told her “no, I’m an educator.”
“Oh. Ok. I just wanted to see if you were a reporter.
“Have a good day.”
“Ok. You too.”
I don’t know what to make of that interaction, but I’m happy she spoke to me. It made me look up from my reading, to notice that more people had arrived. As I looked around, I noticed that I was one of three faces of color. This is Bellevue, but I was still a bit surprised. I kept walking around and began to examine the other attendees. They were mostly people of my age, or older. Definitely white and definitely middle to upper class. There were some young people present, that were members of the Young Americans group, who were to attend the dinner in the next room. Devos was to speak to them after speaking with the older folks, like me. That dinner was for those under the age of 39.
“Are you also alone?”
“I’m sorry? Oh, yes, I am”
A gentleman of about 65 and his daughter approached me and we began to talk about how we didn’t know anyone at the event. They were a nice twosome and quite friendly. During our conversation, they asked why I had never been to an event before. I told them I had recently moved from New York, and was relatively new to the Washington Policy Center. The gentleman looked at me, and asked about rubber rooms.
“Well, they closed I think.”
“Still, the fact that they existed makes no sense!”
“Why they can’t fire teachers that are useless, is beyond me.”
It was at this point that I realized why the anti union argument was gaining traction, with WPC and organizations like WPC. Rubber Rooms were rooms that teachers, that have been, or will be disciplined, must go to, while they are waiting for a decision about how to handle their cases. The Rubber Room is basically a purgatory sentence for classroom teachers, and to my knowledge, only existed in New York City. The teachers receive a full salary, must sit in that room for an entire school day, without leaving, save for lunch and bathroom breaks, until a decision has been made, on whether or not, they can go back to class. That may be a week, a month, a year, and some cases, close to a decade. If a teacher is accused or misconduct or incompetence, they go to the Rubber Room. This practice supposedly ended years ago, but I can see why it frustrates most people. I also understand how this practice is associated with teachers’ unions. However, many teachers are exonerated, and the process is supposed to be less than 30 days. It is equally important that we understand that this happened in NYC and is not representative of all teachers or unions or all school administrations across the country.
The gentleman’s daughter left for the bathroom, and he told me that his grandchild, his daughter’s kid, suffers from seizures. The seizures prevent the girl from attending a public school that can meet her needs, so she attends school online, which is supported by school vouchers. His complaint was that Washington state doesn’t do enough for parents. Whenever school choice is debated, I hear stories like this family’s story. I get asked how I can be against charter schools and vouchers, when I hear stories like this one. My answer is simple:
I am not against school choice.
A parent or guardian should have every right to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child. Zip code or wealth shouldn’t dictate the educational tract of a person. It is a choice that a family makes for their family. The government, nor I, nor anyone should make that choice for anyone else. In my many years as an educator, I have worked at traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and religious- based institutions. Although I may like some places more than others, it was always about the students and responding to the culture of the youth being served. The question we should be asking ourselves is not “is school choice the answer?” The question is: “why are people so invested in school choice?”
The Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000 provided tax incentives to businesses that are located in, and hire residents of, economically depressed urban and rural areas. Most charter schools are in lower income neighborhoods serving mostly students from that area. Businesses that invest in charter schools can double their investment in seven years. The number seven is important because the tax incentives last for seven years, before they expire. In order to keep receiving tax breaks, businesses diversify their portfolios by building more and more charter schools in those areas. Of course with the influx of money, comes the prestige associated with money, which leads to gentrification, which leads to why more wealthy white students go to charter schools, than the students that are meant to be served. In effect, charter schools are one of the leading cause of gentrification, and wealth disparity.
All about that skrilla.
The doors open and I sit down at my table, next to an older white couple. We greet each other and I also say hello to the other 7 people at my table. Everyone is white, except me. They are all smiles, so I smile back. The older couple to my left ask what brings me to the event.
“I wanted to hear Devos speak.”
“Do you like what she has to say?”
“No, but I’m willing to listen.”
“What do you do, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m an educator.”
“Retired police officers.”
Of course, I would sit next to two police officers, at a Betsy Devos event, surrounded by 900 white people.
“Why don’t you like school choice?”
“I’ve got nothing against school choice, but it’s not the answer to solving the problems with education.”
“Yes, we need more teachers working on the bad behavior of students. Those kids won’t learn any other way.”
“Don’t you agree?”
“Absolutely not, the answer isn’t discipline. First we must understand the needs of students and meet those. If we look at the maladaptive behaviors of young people and blame them, because their maslovian needs aren’t met, then our education will continue to operate a system with opportunity gaps. We must look at the teacher training programs and how teachers are prepared to teach. We teach them in a 20th century modality, ignoring the 21st century world, in which we live. The curriculum doesn’t reflect the students being served. I don’t just mean students of color. I mean all students will benefit from having subjects taught in a manner more accepting of different cultures and perspectives. If we end white supremacy, we can solve education problems.”
“Well, I’m sure you know more than I do, about education.”
I apologized for my rant, and she said she appreciated it. It was the rare time I was able to speak with someone, in real life, that had completely opposing views than I. She began talking about her friend, who was a teacher, that was underpaid. She spoke about how Washington was great because it was so welcoming. It was a good conversation.
“Hello and welcome to the Washington Policy Center Annual Dinner!”
The evening’s emcee came out to wondrous applause. He made a joke about the hippies protesting and a joke about the Huskies. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, so I started to eat my salad. When I looked up again, everyone was standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. I stood up, clasped my hands behind my back, and looked at the 100 foot wide USA flag, that was the backdrop for the stage. When the Pledge finished, we all sat down. Then the emcee asked everyone to stand for the National Anthem.
I did not.
My table mates looked at me and then turned their heads. Everyone else sang the song, with hands over their heart. When I could see the stage again, Secretary Betsy Devos was standing at the podium, and addressed the audience.
I wish that I could say that she said something amazing, or that she said something completely onerous, but she did not. She spoke her speech and smiled, in a way only the very wealthy can smile: without joy. She spoke about three students (all of them were of color) that were able to choose their school. One of the three made a video that told the typical sob story of being poor, black, and uneducated, until she was given the opportunity to attend a charter school, where her life changed. She now works with Devos at the Department of Education.
The crowd roared with praise.
Secretary Devos spoke about how school choice saves lives and is the way to go. She said there was no “one size fits all” model for education, then she said school choice will improve education. Then she left the stage and went to the room next door, to speak with the Young Americans.
My cop neighbor table mate asked if I changed my mind about her. I told her I agree that there is no “one size fits all” model, but that school choice is wonderful for those that have the resources to choose a school. School choice is a band aid that only some people can have. The rest of society has to find other ways to cover their wounds.
Somehow, we started talking about police violence and she said that that doesn’t really happen, where she lives, in Kent. I looked at her wondrously. I asked her if she thought Black Lives Matter is anti-cop? She said yes. I talked about how black people were killed by police and we were only saying that our lives also matter. She said, again, that that wasn’t an issue in Washington. I spoke about the several police cases, in Washington, where cops have killed black people. She stared at me. It was at this exact moment where I felt like everyone in the room was also staring at me. My other table mates kept their backs to me, and I went to take a bite of my fish. Before I could a woman came onstage, to say a prayer. She was black which surprised me, but then I remembered how “we shole is gud at chu’ch,” and sat with my hands on my lap.
When the prayer ended, I took a bite of my food, looked at my watch, and excused myself from the table. Not one single person acknowledged that I was leaving. As I walked out, I heard the emcee talk, again, about hippies, but this time it was referencing how the Huskies were losing to those “hippies” at Berkeley.
When I got in my car, my shoulders relaxed. I drove out of the parking lot, playing an old A Tribe Called Quest song.
“Oh my god, yes oh my god
Oh my god, yes oh my god”
I couldn’t have said it better, Busta.
I got home and watched Dave Chapelle’s newest comedy special. I hugged my kids and kissed my wife. When I woke the next day, I grabbed my bag to head to the airport. Today was Saturday, and 45 youth and I were headed to Arizona for Macklemore’s concert.
But that’s another story…
By: James Miles