Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Public Education Saved My Mother From Poverty But Kleptocracy Will Destroy This Promise

My mother and her family circa 1945

I'm going to take a step aside from my usual focus today and write about public education. 

I want to note the rise of kleptocracy which I believe will have dire effects on the engine of uplift that has drawn so many to our shores.

My impoverished grandparents, internally displaced from the Dust Bowl, are rolling in their graves as ignorant billionaire Betsy DeVos prepares to take an ax to public education.

Public education saved their children, and they worked hard to build a house in a California town with a decent high school. As the child of migrant farm workers, my mother had gone to thirteen different schools by the time she was in 8th grade. My grandmother always urged me to do well in school and hoped I might become a doctor. She was a farm girl who firmly nixed any romanticizing of, say, keeping chickens. I don't think she went beyond the 8th grade herself.

As I chart the decline of access to free, high quality schools for all, I find it corresponds closely to the rise of income inequality. Of course the promise "for all" was never kept but there was a time when it hung in the balance and I thought it would fall on the right side of the moral arc of the universe. I was mistaken, and I am sadly disappointed.

I've been to countries where children work from the time they are able to peddle gum on the street corners, or help their mothers beg.

It was my impression that very poor parents would have done just about anything to have their children become literate and numerate. They saw it as the path out of poverty.

Now I've lived long enough to see entire generations in the U.S. impoverished by the dream of college. Decades ago Congress allowed predatory bankers to enslave the young with enormous debts that are immune to bankruptcy filings and that follow former scholars to the grave and even beyond. Any of us who took out loans to attend college did so in the hope that the jobs we could do afterwards would help us repay the loans. For my generation this proved true; for my children's generation, not so much.

As a 30-something in my family described his grad school classmates' fruitless search for jobs that weren't there after the '08 crash, "They never got that first thing, and so they could never get that second and third thing."
Occupy Milwaukee

During Occupy I remember a recent college grad speaking about how many job applications he had filled out, noting his dean's list grades at the local university and saying, "I can't even get a call back from Friendly's Restaurant."

It has been interesting teaching among the rural poor these past twenty years. Many of them would have dropped out of school in previous generations as they are not interested in scholarly things but are good at logging or farming or fixing up their trucks and snowmobiles. (Need I say that their families voted for the demagogue with bad hair? They did, while flying the Confederate flag in their front yards.) Many of them view school as burdensome and hateful, an oppression. Many of their parents view school as free public babysitting.

Despite low funding levels that depend on failing property values, the schools around here are better than some I attended in Los Angeles at the tail end of the baby boom. New England has a solid heritage of literacy and, when I moved from California to Maine with my own children in the 1980's, I was delighted to find them reading real books rather than filling out worksheets. In many ways the great curricula offered by their teachers inspired me to consider changing my career to teaching. Volunteering in classrooms was often the time I felt most happy which was not too surprising as I was always drawn to education like a moth to a flame.

Mom graduating from San Francisco State in 1974 as her youngest helps adjust her cap

My own mother finally made it to college while I was in high school. Buoyed by white privilege that made raising a family feasible on just my father's income, she attended community college for two years, and then transferred to a state university. Tuition in those days was quite reasonable; community college was virtually free. 

The reason public education is so important is that many families lack the resources to exercise choice about where to live or where to send their children to school.

The "savage inequalities" Jonathan Kozol mapped out in 1991 are still with us, more terrible than ever. If you map the test scores of reading and math learning achieved in Maine, they are highly correlated with property values. The wealthy coastal towns with their educated, professional parents have the highest scores. The interior towns of northern Appalachia have the lowest. 

When a child is hungry and cold at home, they deserve the very best schools wouldn't you think? Well now that you have the first secretary of education whose family money bought her the title, you can kiss that promise goodbye. Vouchers for religious schools that teach nonsense instead of science are on the horizon to funnel tax revenues away from the most impoverished to for-profit corporations. 

Standardized test companies already made a windfall off the No Child Left Behind assess-and-punish regime for which you could blame the Bush administration. But, you'd need to include Senate majority leader Ted Kennedy and the other Democrats who rolled over to vote for it.

Education, like health care, is a human right and has no business being marketed as a commodity.

In an egalitarian society parents could choose to unschool, home school, or send their children to high quality public schools in their area. These are all good choices for various people.

Under the current regime parents will choose to unschool, home school, or send their children to mediocre free public babysitting where they will learn that climate change is a hoax and that the Bowling Green Massacre was led by Frederick Douglass. 

Most parents I know don't feel they can afford to unschool or home school entirely, because they need to work to keep a roof over the family. Most parents understand that school vs. home school is a false dichotomy anyway.  You're probably going to do both, with the time and resources available.
Cass Technical High School, once the pride of the Detroit Public Schools. Image:

The rise of an openly white supremacist regime that wants to privatize schools is entirely consistent with the racism at the heart of school inequality. Black and brown children already disproportionately attend schools that are literally broken and failing to provide even a healthy venue in which to learn. The current regime has no intention of fixing that problem. Instead, it plans to profit from the problem, dispensing vouchers and preying on desperate families hoping a for-profit charter will prove better than what they have (based on many studies of charters, it won't).

I doubt that I will be able to work for the empire's schools much longer. I'm upholding an abhorrent system; the little good I do teaching students to write grant applications to reduce plastic water bottles at school or conduct research on topics they care about will likely be less possible in the future.

Perhaps the silver lining will be tax funded religious schools where I can teach the Pagan values many around me hold dear: love Mother Earth, respect her needs, live in harmony with nature including other humans, grow food, and participate in the local economy. 

Health care providers might barter with me to seek their own educational solutions. Farmers might, too. We must all start withholding our labor from corrupt systems, to help one another survive. I don't know what children born today will need to know, but I can probably still help them learn how to become flexible, adept learners. 

My faith in education will never die, but my faith in public education is in its death throes. The wealthy will send their children to elite private schools as they have always done. The rest of us will need to band together and fend for ourselves.


Sarah Roche-Mahdi said...

Superb piece. In admiration, Sarah Roche-Mahdi

Anonymous said...

And Skowhegan gets another charter school. What a deal for charter schools. They get public money (that would have gone to public schools), they get to pick and choose their student body, be run like a private school AND make a tidy profit for a few. Take away ALL their public money and see how long they remain in business. Pete Sirois

Starr Gilmartin said...

As always your fact based opinion is compelling and also alarming. So scared for our future learners in this Orwellian dystopia.