Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Can a Hurricane Wipe Out Democracy?

In her powerful book, Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein explained the ways disasters – both natural and man-made – can be so destructive, can leave people so vulnerable, that a hostile takeover may be welcomed as a rescue.  Specifically, a hurricane or a political coup or a tsunami may wipe out so much, and leave people so desperate, that they’ll agree to anything that seems like a quick fix. Especially, as Klein describes, “fixes” that they would never agree to under normal circumstances, would never vote for.

The “shock,” then is the disaster. The “shock doctrine” is the strategic goal to replace democratic institutions, public goods owned by and governed by the people, with private, corporate entities that make a profit off what was once the public’s.  Klein traces the privatization doctrine back to economist Milton Friedman, then tracks his influence through not just the spread of his ideas but also specific individuals who studied under him and took government jobs or think tank consultancies in countries like Chile during the time of Pinochet (the case of a “disaster” being a violent, anti-democracy political coup). 

For those of us in education, the most compelling chapter may be the story of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of the city, dispersing its population across the country and disrupting most city services, including the schools.   Before New Orleans’ public school teachers could return to the city, before any of the public’s schools had been rebuilt, the corporate forces and their politicians moved in with their shock doctrine fix:  close the public’s schools and replace them with corporate charters.   Using the public’s tax dollars of course.   A Louisiana member of Congress, even before the flood water receded, that “Hurricane Katrina did to the Lower 9th Ward what we’ve never been able to do politically.”  Meaning, wipe out this mostly African American neighborhood and “re-develop” it for profit.   New Orleans voters would never vote to close their schools or fire their teachers; but, hey, a hurricane took care of that messy chore in Lower 9th and other mostly poor, mostly African American communities. We know what came next: public school teachers fired, replaced by much less qualified Teach for America and other less credentialed people in for-profit or (supposedly) non-profit corporate charters of questionable educational quality and documented detriment of democratically governed, community-based schools.

It’s in that context of corporatizing traditionally democratic institutions that Klein’s new book takes us to Puerto Rico, where the “shock” of Hurricane Maria had already been preceded by the “shock” of Wall Street, colonizing the Puerto Rican economy by complex forms of new indebtedness to the big banks and investment firms.  Into this already precarious – and largely avoidable – financial situation roared Hurricane Maria last September, essentially wiping out the island’s infrastructures for electricity, communications, roads and bridges, and its schools. The Battle for Paradise  documents this next round of post-disaster predatory capitalism – exploiting the exhaustion of thousands who still lack electricity with a plan to privatize (corporatize) the power grid, taking advantage of people still struggling to find drinking water and medical supplies and ways to repair their homes by cutting deals with high level officials to turn every possible public institution into a profit stream for corporate interests. The schools are not immune: a plan to charterize schooling, shutting down not only the schools that need rebuilding but many that were never damaged (since the publication of this book, a judge has ruled against the charter plan. But the fight is not over)

But Puerto Ricans are fighting back.  The Battle for Paradise is the story of that struggle.  It does not sugar coat the huge financial and political powers aligned to undermine democracy in the island.    It is in the face of those daunting powers that people are coming together in new and creative alliances to shape the rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s social institutions at the same time as, and as seamless with, the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure.

The book arose out of a forum on the dangers of disaster capitalism to “undermine our country’s well-being, especially that of our most vulnerable inhabitants.  These [corporate privatization] policies will limit access to basic rights such as water, electricity, and housing and will destroy our environment, health, and democracy, as well as our quality of life …and all the while they will increase the transfer of wealth to the already rich.”

Klein also sees hope. This slim volume contains beautiful examples of the strength of communities working together. My favorite is Casa Pueblo, a civic and community center where 20 years earlier solar panels had been installed, to the derision of many. While politicians dragged their feet, highly questionable contracts were signed with completely unequipped repair companies, and huge areas of the island remained without power for months, Casa Pueblo had light!  Literally, electricity, but figuratively as well:  a beacon of collaboration, sensible science, community-based practicality.   People came from miles away to charge phones and medical devices, prepare healthy meals, convene community gatherings.

The battle for paradise is – and will be – a struggle between democratically, locally-based, community-strengthening rebuilding, or  the predatory displacement of local control by corporate investors exploiting the shock of financial and hurricane disaster for greed and profit:  supported by the wealthy in gated enclaves unaffected by the long-term harm to the island’s schools and neighborhoods and daily activities.   Klein’s book holds out hope because she has spent time with and seen up close the 60 organizations that have come together as JunteGente (people together) to build a democratic Puerto Rico.  She knows time is of the essence, the people with money and power can move more quickly and irreversibly, the collision of the two visions of Paradise is inevitable. 
The Battle for Paradise is not just local to Puerto Rico:  Klein’s analysis captures the threat to democracy in our larger society and, especially, in our schools.  I offer her book as a prelude to the new series of posts which, following The Children Are Watching, will trace the battle to protect the America’s public schools – so central to our democracy – from those who would destroy them and replace them with a “market” of corporate charter chains.  I’m calling that series Grand Theft Schoolhouse.  In the model of Naomi Klein I hope to write concretely and clearly about what is at stake when “disaster capitalism” walks through the doors of our children schools.   And I hope to highlight, as she does, those examples of civic action and hope which are essential to ending not only disaster capitalism but the vulnerabilities it so shamelessly exploits.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Teaching for Black Lives

The Children are Watching

Teachers love summer! It is a great time for learning, for gathering up new ideas for our students, for planning new ways to engage children in powerful learning.  Rethinking Schools once again makes that learning exciting, that planning inspiring. Their new title is Teaching for Black Lives.  It is a comprehensive compendium of very timely information and instructional plans for teachers of Black students.  The authors are all educators, most of them in public school classrooms.  Many are themselves African American or teachers of color.  Many teach in challenging schools; others teach students whose toughest challenges are outside the school in their communities.

The entries are beautifully written, themselves the kinds of compelling prose we hope to model for our students.  The topics bridge the historical, the personal, the political, the literary, and, frankly, the urgent. Each chapter includes substantive background information for teachers, and for teachers to share with their students.  That level of substance provides a level of credibility and honesty seldom evidenced in traditional textbooks, assuring a foundation for the lessons that will engage students in research, investigation, personal reflection, writing and analyzing issues of vital important to Black lives.

Such real life issues as the interactions of Black youth and police officers, and the justice system itself, are dealt with in ways that invite critical thinking and open dialogue, as well as deeper probing into historical factors at work over time.   The impending (or already experienced) loss of homes or neighborhoods through the absurdly named “gentrification” is explored in depth through readings, oral histories, mapping, and personal stories.  Like housing, the abundant resources in this volume have relevance to students who are not African American but who experience many of these same displacements or marginalizing forces, or who don’t and need to learn about them. If these lessons were taught in all schools, youth in varied circumstances and cultures could come to know and make common cause with each other.

I can’t end this plug for this amazing book without congratulating its editors on the brilliant art work throughout.  The exuberant cover hints at great visuals throughout, gripping in themselves and perfect as writing prompts! Congratulations again to everyone at Rethinking Schools for this book we’ve been needing.  If you’re a teacher, order it today! If you know a teacher, buy it for her beach reading!   

Friday, July 13, 2018

And Still The Children Watch

The Children are Watching

The sheer innocence in the face of this little boy peering over the border wall from his home in Mexico into the US got me to thinking about what he would see.  Would he see friendly neighbors, a wall of uniformed guards, a “land of opportunity,” or a threat to a healthy, peaceful childhood?

His openness becomes our obligation:  is what the grownups are doing – and making – and undoing – good for children? Is it what we want them to see and to find security in and to one day emulate?  The photograph reminded me of a simple but powerful book written by Ted and Nancy Sizer, The Students are Watching.  The subtitle carries the Sizers' central message:  Schools and the Moral Contract.  Written in 1999, partially in response to the killings of students by students at Columbine High School, the Sizers write about schools as representing our social contract with our youth.   By the ways they teach, not just the content they teach, our schools have the potential to foster in youth an individual moral agency grounded in the common good.  The Sizers, educators committed to equity and to a public education system predicated on democratic values and practices, address the alienation many youth feel in large, impersonal, bureaucratic schools where teaching and learning are generic, routinized, or aimed at a technical mastery. They argue that such schooling precludes the experience of, and deep understanding of, the values imbedded in our domains of knowledge and in our democracy.  For Nancy and Ted Sizer, the “standards” our schools need to attain are the values of empathy, curiosity for learning, respect for thinking, and concern for the common good.  Students will find these credible and be inspired to grow toward them when they see the adults – in the school and in the community, enact them as a part of normal everyday practice.

We know the children are watching:  what are they seeing in the adults around them today?  I began this “Children Are Watching” series of blog posts thinking I’d be writing about such issues as whether Congress would fully fund the critically needed Children’s Health Insurance program (CHIP), and protect  DACA considering the president’s arbitrary cut-off date for these young people’s safe immigration status.   The increasing urgency of gun control. Lots of issues pending that related to the needs of children.

I never dreamed I’d have to be writing about babies and toddlers taken from their parents by our own government and by all accounts “lost” in the increasingly anti-immigrant system being erected by this administration.  I would have shuddered to think we’d need to write about the US government threatening to cut off military aid (military aid?) to Ecuador for introducing into a World Health Organization resolution a statement encouraging breast feeding (those formula companies need their profits!!

The children are not just watching – they are living this anti-child nightmare.    A sick child may not know what CHIP is, but she does know if her mama says “we don’t have money for a doctor.”  The at least 800,000 youth covered by the DACA status are now teenagers and older, but they have younger siblings, sometimes children of their own, children growing up with the anxiety of impermanence. 

And even very young children see the images of children in cages at the border, or whisked down dark streets to “shelters” out of the public eye. They cannot miss the tears and horror that their own parents and teachers can’t hide from them at each new story of family separations, of children held hostage far from their parents. You don’t have to be a brown child who speaks another language and just got here to feel the fear that my parents may disappear, that my parents can’t always protect me.

The Sizers were right: the children see what we do as our enacted values. What values are the children seeing in us right now?  I hope in addition to seeing the official cruelty of these immigration policies, the demonizing of “people not like us,”, they can see the thousands of Americans who are rising up on behalf of children.

The children can also see people who love them, speak up for them, take political risks for them (why should being an advocate for children be risky in our democracy?), take on the powerful on their behalf.    Hope may be less visible than all these outrages, but it is emerging in powerful new ways:

School children, grandmothers, community groups, civic leaders, mayors and governors and courageous senators have stepped up to protest using child separation to intimidate asylum seekers into leaving.  From teachers to psychiatrists and psychologists to pediatricians, professional organizations have used their expertise to speak out on behalf of these children, to end the harm of trauma and separation.  Airlines have told the government they will not transport the separated children, nor profit from those separations.  Lawyers are offering to represent immigrant families pro-bono to get them released from these illegal detentions, to demand legally required credible fear hearings.  Ordinary Americans of all ages and cultures and political persuasions – and many people in other countries, are raising money to assist these families get their kids back (I hope the news isn’t true that these already traumatized families are having to pay for the DNA tests to prove their kids are theirs, or for the airfare to bring their kids back from across the US.)  There are still many profiteers, eagerly scooping up our tax dollars without regard to the children they are exploiting.  But there is no longer silence. The children can see much creative action to end this cruelty and hear the loud chorus of “never again, not in our name.”

But the children aren’t merely watching:  Literally millions of Americans of all ages joined in the rallies and marches led by the students of Marjorie Steadman High School of Parkland High School to pressure Congress and the states for gun control laws.    These youth mobilized a nation.     

Historians and psychologists and anthropologists and biographers will no doubt look back on this anti-child period of our history and give us explanations for what is right now, as we live it, inexplicable.  Did our elected leaders hate their mothers, or their children? Did the growing awareness of the fragility of the planet engender a futureless fatalism?  Did fear supplant optimism as the American civic currency?    I can’t speculate with any real sense of understanding. But I do know that the children are watching.   Let’s not give them reason to give up on us.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Fears, the Stranger and the Muslim Travel Ban

A Lesson from a Poet 

Fear is the handy weapon wielded by the people in power when they know their ideas would never be accepted by a thinking public, by informed voters. I always think that when politicians have to resort to scare tactics they are admitting a failure of imagination.  Their weakness becomes power only when they make everyone else afraid.

The uses of fear to marginalize, subjugate, militarize, and exploit have a long history even in our democracy.  From the Europeans’ demonizing of the Native Peoples as savage to justify usurping their lands, to white Southern men’s claims that Black men were a danger to “their” white women (thus maintaining dominance over both), to hysteria that asylum seekers at our border with Mexico (many of them mothers and very young children) are gangsters, the people of the “home of the brave” can be embarrassingly quick to give in to manufactured fears.

The travel ban the US Supreme Court just last week affirmed is an especially clever case in point:  Koreans and Venezuelans were conveniently made honorary Muslims to slip the travel ban past the Constitutional barriers against overt religious discrimination.  If the babies coming in from Central America are all proto-MS-13 gang members, the Muslims from designated countries (Korea but not Saudi Arabia!) are all likely terrorists: Keep them out!

If we have a justifiable fear, it is of those who would rule by fear, who belittle and dismiss our better instincts (“soft on Communists/terrorists/gangs”), and who silence our most generous instincts.

A friend reminds me that sometimes a poet can break into that silence, be our voice not just for rejecting fear, but for overcoming it. She sent me this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. Naomi Shihab Nye is a Texas treasure, Palestinian and American; a wise and graceful writer. I share “Red Brocade” with you as our meditation for strength beyond fear:

Red Brocade

The Arabs used to say,

When a stranger appears at your door,

feed him for three days

before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.
-Naomi Shihab Nye
19 Varieties of Gazelle, 2002

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Kids Count – or Do They in Texas? (Part II)

The Children Are Watching                                                    

In an earlier blog I stated that the cruel treatment of immigrant children being separated from their families at our southern border resides in our government’s sense that these are “other people’s children,” not ours to take care of, show compassion to, or be responsible for.  I said surely if we understood the humanity of these very young children, we would never take them far away from their parents, would not deny their parents an asylum hearing for fleeing known harms threatening their children.  Surely if we saw them as “all our children,” we would show compassion, be smart and kind in our treatment of these traumatized arrivals, and in respecting their humanity affirm our own.

Turns out I was wrong.  Two new studies show our country doesn’t do too well by its own children.  Too many are poor.  Too many lack access to health care.  Too many fail to graduate high school.  And too many lack safe housing and basic services essential for children to thrive.

I previously highlighted the new report by the UnitedNations on extreme poverty worldwide.  It shows the very wealthy US with as many as one-fifth (20%) of its children living in poverty.  Many in extreme poverty – the measure of which is a mere $2.00/day.  As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reminds us in reporting out the UN study, the US regularly separates American children from families through mass incarceration and over-use of the foster system, both of which disproportionately to lasting harm to African American families and children.  

So what about Texas? The nation and the world have their eyes on Texas as the detention tents, internment camps and “baby jails” are constructed along our southern border for migrant families seeking safety for their families.   If the cameras turned away from the border to scan the communities where “our” children live, what would they see?

The just-released Kids Count 2018 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation has the numbers and they are not good.    Texas, one of the richest states in the US and one of the richest economies in the world, ranks among the lowest 10 states in the welfare of its children.   The facts are shameful, the need for action never more urgent.  Here is a summary of this year’s Kids Count Texas from the Center for Public Policy Priorities:

Texas Ranks 43rd in Latest National Rankings of Child Well-Being
Reflecting overall trends in the United States, Texas child poverty and health insurance rates have improved. An estimated 22 percent of Texas children lived in poverty in 2016, down from 23 percent in 2015. Despite these gains, Texas still lags behind other states, ranking 37th in child poverty and 48th in the percent of children without health insurance.
The national KIDS COUNT Data Book annually ranks each state in four core areas of child well- being: health, education, economic well-being and family and community. Texas lags behind most states in child well-being, and state legislators need to enact policies to improve child outcomes. Texas ranks:
  • 35th in economic well-being. Although the number of children in poverty has decreased, more than 1.6 million Texas kids still live in poverty. About 27 percent of kids in Texas live in families where no member of the household has full-time, year-round employment.
  • 32nd in education. Data in the report confirm that Texas needs to do more to support education. A majority of Texas kids lack the reading and math skills they need to pursue higher education. Texas has a better on-time graduation rate than the U.S. average. 11 percent of Texas high schoolers did not graduate on time in the 2015-16 school year compared to 16 percent of students nationally. However, challenges in college and career readiness remain. Texas struggles to help its children improve in reading and math. Seventy-one percent of Texas fourth-graders scored below proficient in reading levels, and 67 percent of Texas eighth-graders scored below proficient in math levels.
  • 47th in the family and community domain. The Data Book refers to nurturing families and supportive communities as "family and community." Although the numbers are declining, 17 percent of Texas kids still live in high-poverty areas. An estimated 20 percent (almost 1.5 million) of kids in Texas live with a parent who lacks a high school diploma, down from 23 percent in 2012.
41st in health. Texas child health insurance rates have improved since 2010, but still rank third to last in the United States. Lawmakers at the federal and state levels must protect and expand insurance access. Recent improvements are largely the result of the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which increased kids' access to critical physical and mental health care and strengthened families’ financial security by reducing unexpected medical expenses. Threats to cut the popular Children's Health Insurance Program in 2017 and continued attacks on the ACA are not in line with keeping kids healthy.
CPPP has actively engaged in the Texas Public School Finance Commission, which has been meeting this year, and urges that group to recommend boosted public school investment for Texas children.
“This report confirms that state leaders need to take more aggressive steps to improve the lives of millions of children and families, and that includes ensuring an accurate census," said Kristie Tingle, a research analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. "Texas demographics — our large immigrant population and diverse overall population — have long made it a major challenge to get an accurate, full count of residents, and that challenge could be even larger in 2020 because of changes to the census."

Three important observations emerge from these statistics:

1)    As the Center for Public Policy Priorities points out, all of these conditions are remediable.  More Texas children have access to health care because of the Affordable Care Act – a federal initiative resisted by most Texas politicians but vital to our children. 

2)    These problems can be solved with action, with smart legislation, with public activism that pushes our Texas elected officials to act on behalf of children.  They need to lead out on expanding access to affordable health care for families and on protecting and expanding funding for CHIP (the federal Children’s Health Insurance).

3)    Solving these problems will require an accurate count of all the children in Texas.  The upcoming 2020 census threatens to leave children out if the census is used as a tool of immigration policing or other restrictive purposes.  It may undercount rural children, the high number of children living in poverty.  Federal funding, legislative representation and many other policy imperatives depend on an accurate count. 

We have been horrified as the stories emerge about parents who have no idea where their children are and children, most of them not speaking English and many even too young to talk, having no idea where their parents are, who these strangers are keeping them captive, and where they are.  The slow, uncaring response from the White House and government officials has made many question whether this is even America any more.  CPPP reminds us that knowing who the children are and where they are is equally critical if we as Texans are to assure all children thrive.  That’s why something as seemingly arcane as the 2020 census becomes crucial.  Here is more from CPPP on that urgency:

Possible 2020 census undercount could worsen conditions for Texas kids
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas children cannot afford to have an inaccurate census count, as the data would have major consequences for their health, wellness, education and economic opportunity. Texas ranks 43rd in child well-being – one of the 10 worst states for kids – though there are a few bright spots, including a decrease in the number of uninsured Texas children, according to the 2018 KIDS COUNT® Data Book released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report confirms challenges for Texas kids and highlights the critical role of the upcoming 2020 census. Billions of dollars in federal aid to states rely on the accuracy of the census, including significant support for children's health care, housing and food programs.
“We have to count all the children and families in Texas, because we can't support people we don’t know are here,” said Ann Beeson, CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP). “The data show us that Texas children have many challenges, and we need an accurate census to advance proven policy solutions that make this the best state for kids.”
Census surveys via internet may also not pick up lower-income populations without internet access. In Texas, 30 percent of young children under the age of five live in hard to count census tracts. These 582,000 children are at risk of being undercounted in the upcoming 2020 census, and federally funded programs that have driven youth success are in jeopardy.
CPPP offers the following recommendations to achieve a more accurate census:
  • Identify the ‘hard to count’ communities. Community leaders and elected officials should learn about Texas’ “hard to count” communities and begin reaching out to them now. Visit to find areas of Texas that are the hardest to count.
  • Conduct outreach across Texas. State and local governments and community organizations need to ensure that all communities are counted. Create statewide and local 2020 census “complete count” committees.
  • Speak to your local officials. All Texans can encourage their city and county officials to work with library systems, schools or other locations that might be helpful in encouraging residents to participate in the census. Texans can call their members of Congress and encourage them to maximize the Census Bureau’s capacity. Federal lawmakers should fully fund the census outreach effort,

The only reason for Texas children not to thrive is if we take these dire statistics as inevitable rather than as inspirations for concerted, collective action. The children of Texas are watching.

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