Or, A Lesson My Teacher Taught Me
When President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education as a cabinet department in 1979, educators across the country were thrilled. In the post-US/Vietnam war era, the education of America’s children would have the same official standing as the US treasury, the military (“defense”), agriculture, and foreign affairs. No longer sandwiched in between “Health” and “Welfare,” Education would leave the old HEW department and be an official national priority: a Cabinet department. Surely this independent standing would create leverage for research funding, for special programs, for innovation and, most important, for implementing and monitoring and enforcing equity – the rights of all children to an equitable education. Teachers, parents, and educators at all levels celebrated this affirmation of their work and of the children.
|By Spencer Rich Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Sep 28, 1979;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. A1
But I heard a word of caution. John Palmer, my doctoral dissertation advisor and Dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Education, is a historian and an astute observer of the uses of power. He saw the new Cabinet department through a different lens. I recall his very quiet words of wisdom: “You know, when you create a new program or a new structure, you have to think very carefully about whether this is what you would want to have in place if the other party were in power. What might this new department mean if the other party were in control of it?”
For some reason, those words stuck in my mind. Perhaps because John Palmer is one of the wisest people I know and, yes, though I was officially his student all those years ago, he continues to be my teacher. At the time, I think we thought the worst that could happen would be reduced funding for education research and for attention to such critical issues as special education, bilingual education, and the advocacy and enforcement of equity provisions not always reliably maintained by some of the states.
Never did we (or, at least, I) envision that having “the other party in power” would mean a threat to the very existence of the nation’s public schools. The public’s schools. Yet that’s where we are: a person whose stated goal is to destroy the public’s schools has been appointed to be the United States Secretary of Education. A person who has given hundreds of millions of dollars to elect politicians willing to de-fund the public’s schools and shift the public’s tax dollars to corporate charter chains: to private companies that will get rich at public expense using our children as the raw materials in their money machines.
Our schools – and our teachers – have survived four recent Secretaries of Education of questionable qualifications, often open antipathy toward teachers, and a deficit view of children and their families.
I personally heard Rod Paige, when he was superintendent of Houston’s public schools, describe Mexican American parents who called his office concerned that in late October their high school-age children still did not have textbooks as “interfering with my [his!] schools.” Margaret Spellings seemed chosen just to keep the Texas-style accountability system in place under George W. Bush. Arne Duncan famously bragged about closing schools in Chicago, a red flag that should have been an immediate disqualification, especially when President Obama had other, stellar, choices among talented and dedicated educators to choose from. Duncan and Obama doubled down on the Bush policies of punishing under-funded schools rather than investing in them and their children, giving the corporatizers (Democrats as well as Republicans) the excuse they needed to justify closing schools in minority neighborhoods, shifting our tax dollars to wealthy charter chains and their money managers, and generally promulgating a rhetoric of “failing schools.” (And of John King, the less said the better.)
So in walks Betsy DeVos. It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump knows nothing about public education, its central role in our democracy, its anchoring of our communities and their local economies and civic life. If he knew that the public’s schools are pillars of our democracy, are a true public good, he wouldn’t agree or even be interested. But he didn’t have to know. We learn now that Betsy DeVos has been pursuing a “long game,” for years funding politicians to do her bidding to destroy the public’s schools, to weaken the teaching profession for its voice in education policy and its previous fairly reliable votes for Democrats and their pro-public education policies. Her “long game” is to divorce the education of children from the control of their parents and the people their parents elect.
So now we look at all those functions (and budgets) under the centralized control of a Secretary of Education and recall those cautionary words of my great teacher, John Palmer: is this the structure you’d want to have in place if the other party were in power?
Professor Palmer’s close colleague and another professor of mine, Herb Kliebard, expressed the caution differently. He always told us that as chaotic as the American system of public education is, with so many local, county, state and federal jurisdictions overlapping and often contradicting each other, that chaos was in fact the strength of the system: federal policies mitigated the racist exclusions in George Wallace’s Alabama, federal and state funding brought special education to poor or reluctant school districts, and local school boards had to answer to parents. The potential for crazy still lurked at all levels, but all these intersecting policy venues assured that no one bad policy was controlling the whole system.
The chaos a Betsy DeVos will wreak is not what Herb Kliebard had in mind. He saw openings for dialogue, for invention, for questioning, for local quirkiness, for experiment on the one hand and for holding on to good traditions on the other. Conservatives need to remember their mantra against “big government.” Progressives need not to feel we have to apologize for invoking democracy. We will have to build new coalitions of resistance to fight privatization of education, to protect our treasured public good, and to assert positive solutions at every jurisdictional level, leveraging the chaos where we find it.
Our children deserve no less. Our democracy depends on the education of its people.