A case against charter schools: send back your saviors

As a professor, I work with public school teachers who are in the process of becoming certified to teach in the New York City Department of Education in a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows. These new teachers support students from all over the world, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, emergent bilinguals (meaning people who are developing multilingual competences and literacies for a world that, they are told, will value these unique abilities when they enter the workforce), Black and Brown, and generally, within a single classroom, quite diverse. The important task of working with these young people puts my teachers into all kinds of schools and programs across the city, some in the neighborhoods where they grew up, and when we meet on a weekly basis, I hear great – and sometimes hard – stories about their experiences.

Some tell me they struggle with a demanding schedule, rushing from one teaching block to another with little time for a bite of lunch. Many have classrooms filled to the brim with students, working, for example, with 30 or 40 second-graders with wide-ranging individual needs requiring differentiation, personnel, and resources that the teacher often cannot provide. Others work in places like transfer schools which serve students who are struggling to graduate before the age of 21, when they age out of the system, because they have different language and academic needs and backgrounds than their more advantaged counterparts in other parts of the country. There are disciplinary issues, academic challenges, programmatic limitations, and a host of other struggles that these teachers face on a daily basis as they enter their classrooms and hit the ground running with “Miss!” “Miss!” called from the back of the room in the morning.

These classrooms are microcosms for the broader sociopolitical context of the United States and the city. For example, several of the teachers in my classes have received an influx of Puerto Rican students whose families have emigrated from the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria this summer. Others work with large numbers of lower-income students  (the term “free lunch” appears in such conversations) who make up a sizable portion of the New York City public school population. One of biggest challenges is the policy environment we’re working in, known as the high-stakes testing era, where student test scores can help define how much funding a school gets, what teachers are retained or receive tenure, and even how teachers teach their classes. Both causes and effects of inequality and injustice at municipal, state-wide, and broader levels, the victims are students often essentialized according to their race or immigrant identity and consequently blamed for the deficits in their “performance” (a term I put in quotes because so often in our social context we are primarily concerned with test scores, rather than with growth and development, which pits students against each other in the race for scant academic and economic resources).

Underlying most of these difficulties that tax our new teachers and demand their time – weekends, early mornings, evenings included – and health is the fact that the public school system has been perceived by our leaders as a bigger and bigger problem needing resolution, and, paradoxically, a place where less and less funding should go. Betsy Devos, current U.S. Secretary of Education, has been proposing since Summer 2017 a 9 billion dollar cut to public education while singing the praises of school choice, the blanket term used for the implementation of school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools across the country. Devos has suffered an embattled tenure thus far in office, for good reason. She is a huge proponent of privatization of education in this country, which she and her family directly benefit from, while showing little real understanding of the schools and their inhabitants, the teachers and students who engage in teaching and learning there every day. Devos’s perspective is critiqued as characteristically a policy maker’s one, with a dark twist: a belief that free-market thinking and business models, which emphasize streamlining, accountability, competition, and cost reduction above all else, will “cure” our schools of their problems. Charter schools represent such thinking because they ostensibly take the burden of education off the backs of tax payers and allow private entities to do better what our schools have not been able to.

However, I have never, ever heard one of my teachers say, “We should close my school and send our students to a charter school.” They have never said, “Someone with money from outside the community could do this better than we could. We’re just waiting for them to come in on their expensive white horse to help us out.”

A knight and his lover astride a horse try to escape ghostly figures of Death. Engraving by Harding after Lady Diana Beauclerk, 1796. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The problems our schools face are rooted in an issue that our government and much of the United States public are gravely mistaken about. We blame our schools for being ineffective, for not keeping us in the international game as economic competitors and leaders, for listening to teacher unions who, we say, slow down the important process of getting rid of bad teachers and replacing them with good ones. All of these points have some truth to address. But we do not give our schools enough money to solve their own problems. We don’t trust our teachers, who have over time been demonized by “bad teacher” scare stories in the press. Sucking the funding out of public schools, through policies that cut this funding, and put it into the hands of private enterprise that starts charter schools – which, incidentally, can be nonprofit or for-profit – while popular over the last few years, is much to blame. And policy makers who support this approach have failed in their promises that such an approach, paired with privatization, will save our schools. Cited in public debate as a savioristic option for youth of color in cities who struggle through the public education system, charter schools as a symbol of this corporate and philanthro-baron takeover in education have fallen far short.

Read “There Is No ‘Progressive Case’ for Charter Schools” in Truth-out for a thorough discussion of this issue. While some of my colleagues will disagree with me and cite their own schools as examples of charter school success, the pars pro toto argument cannot and does not apply across the board, though it provides an easy out for policymakers who face pressure to cut taxes. To avoid the much bigger, more complex, interrelationship of racism and capitalistic profit – where prejudice against Black and Brown and immigrant communities and the mad search for profit by the elites and corporations that influence political leaders to depict our schools as needing a business approach to “correct their missteps” go hand in hand – is to see schools as sick patients, rather than as groups of individuals already working together in and committed to their communities. My teachers see this, and suffer from the effects of social myopia that refuse them the resources, policy, and social support that they need to help our country’s youth engage with all of the possibilities of the future ahead of them. I fear that in a generation’s time, the problems we cite today will pale in comparison to the loss of creativity, diverse thinking, and responsibility to our fellow community members that is becoming normalized as we demonize “low-performing” schools and scapegoat our teachers for the starvation diet, on ideological and economic terms, we’ve put them on.

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“Zines as creative resistance”: authoring the world, authoring ourselves

The Graduate Center library and first-floor hallways have spaces for exhibitions of art by artists with a variety of commitments and visions, some of which are beautiful, raw, terrifying, playful, and sometimes – in my favorite cases – all of the above. Below I’ve collected a group of images of zines which explore topics of race, queer ways of being, misogyny and women’s rights to self-determination, and other topics. Their images and stories are inventive, joyful, colorful, and saturated with the real commitments of their makers. An inspiration for all of us to author ourselves in authoring our worlds!


 

A Night at the Garden: White supremacy and collective forgetting

“A Night at the Garden” is a short film that depicts a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1939. Billed as a “pro-American” rally, the images of the columns of white, uniformed men from the ethnic German group called the German American Bund striking drums, carrying swastika-adorned banners, and displaying rows of American flags in front of a cheering, saluting audience are terrifying, to say the least.

This might like an anachronism in terms, perhaps, of haircuts or police mounted on horseback, or a distant document that should inspire immediate disgust in the 21st-century viewer. Nevertheless, the shock it produces also indexes the collective forgetting by an America that sees itself as a cultural leader in a globalized world, always moving forward in postures of innovation and newness, in denial of much of the anti-Semitism and white supremacy that has underpinned our country’s history.

The final image of the film:

As a testimony to the fact that such thinking is not so far away from the realm of possibility, one need only look at the rise of the right wing in Europe, most recently with the election of Austria’s newest prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, whose People’s Party is likely to build a coalition government by allying itself with the former Nazi-affiliated Freedom Party in that country. And if that seems too far away, too foreign to our own experience of life here, there has been a rise not only of right-wing activism (as we’re all well aware of in the infamous and deadly Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017) but also in less visible locations. Recently, Bard College, a small, private college in New York, hosted a conference entitled “Crises in Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” One of their speakers: a representative of Alternative for Germany, a far-right anti-immigrant nationalist party from that country. It could be inferred that his invitation represented an ethic of free speech, of seeking a balanced approach to the conversation.

Yet when I asked a colleague in attendance whether anyone protested his being there, or even asked a question to challenge his ideas, the answer was “no.” Was this politeness, a commitment to hearing all sides…or a quiet addition to the rising normalcy of violent nationalism percolating in the world nowadays?

Is a conversation action?: bell hooks and theory for healing and liberation

A politically conscious and active friend of mine teaches in an early college program in Queens, where teenagers learn from him about U.S. history and great literature. This weekend, we chatted a bit about his work, how wonderful and inspiring it can be, as well as how uncertain in terms of greater consequences. My friend is not cynical about education, but he did lament the fact that his conversations with his students might have little real-world impact. “It’s not the same thing as getting out there and marching,” he said. “Not the same thing as action.”

Or is it? bell hooks, public scholar who writes and speaks about race, feminism, capitalism, and many other topics (I attended a panel which included her at The New School about Beyonce and “the booty” a couple of years ago), wrote in a 1991 essay entitled “Theory as Liberatory Practice” about the power of creative engagement, of theorizing in responding to our pain, a response takes place in the mind and heart and yes, in the community as well. Yet the proposition that thinking and talking, the generative imaginative tilling of soil, is “action” in and of itself is one that continues to meet resistance.


bell hooks. Image from the bell hooks institute.

hooks cites a meeting she has with Black female thinkers, in which she hears the frustration some women had with with dominant feminist theory, with “all this talk” which appears to oppose real responses, authentic, embodied ideas that address the lived struggles of the Black community. She responds that speaking can itself be subversive, when it disrupts elite claims on knowledge and the ability to produce it:

…I dared to speak, saying in response to the suggestion that we were just wasting our time talking, that I saw our words as an action, that our collective struggle to discuss issues of gender and blackness without censorship was as subversive a practice…Just as some elite academics who construct theories of “blackness” in ways that make it a critical terrain which only the chosen few can enter, using theoretical work on race to assert their authority over black experience, denying democratic access to the process of theory making, threaten collective black liberation struggle, so do those among us who react to this by promoting anti-intellectualism by declaring all theory as worthless. By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.

hooks reminds us that academics, of all colors and backgrounds, have perpetually been regarded as singular creators of theory, an activity which is seen simultaneously as elite and without relevance to our worlds. Her words call for praxis – a reflective, dynamic, unfinished cycle of theory and practice – toward critical education evoked the work of Paulo Freire in the late 20th century as he advocated for the disruption of hegemonic, oppressive forces through emancipatory pedagogy. Importantly, hooks’s notion of democratic access to this ever-emergent praxis is a feminist, collective one, inviting contestation and imagination for changing times.

In responding to my friend, I mentioned this, and added that I had a socioculturalist take on the process of education. “How do you know what you and your students talk about won’t have impact outside the classroom?” I asked. “What if one of them comes home, tells her dad about What We Talked About In Class Today, and then her dad speaks to someone at work tomorrow, and then this creates some influences, and then, and then…?” I trailed off but I hoped it made sense. We can’t always anticipate or control the outcomes of our teaching, nor should we. We can’t tell our students what to do with the learning that they experience with us, but what we can do is have faith that building theory and creating new knowledge together can have influence far beyond the 45 minutes we’re with them.

This is where social movements start: with an idea, with a theory, with a question. How can you really say where talking stops…and action begins?

Educators as political participants, sanctuary as co-authored activity toward radical hope: Politico article about CUNY professors and our syllabi

On Wednesday, Politico published an article about the opening statement I and other professors use on their syllabi at City College, Hunter College, and other CUNY campuses in New York. The statement, which I adopted in January 2017 and have included for all of my classes since, reads:

 As an educator, I fully support the rights of undocumented students to an education and to live free from the fear of deportation. If you have any concerns in that regard, feel free to discuss them with me, and I will respect your wishes concerning confidentiality.

Furthermore, I am committed to making CUNY a sanctuary campus for undocumented immigrants, not just in word but in deed – through the campus community refusing to allow ICE to enter our campus and refusing to cooperate with and struggling to prevent any government attempts to ascertain the immigration status of members of our community or to detain or deport undocumented immigrants.

Since I included the statement – which I read aloud on the first day of every class – I have gotten strong, generally positive reactions from my students. In New York it’s common to have very diverse classrooms and conversations about racial, linguistic, gendered, and other types of difference include challenges to stereotypes and misconceptions about people of color, poor people, and transnational (immigrant) students and their families on a regular basis. Many of my students themselves are immigrants or from immigrant families, and many are directly impacted by the decision by Donald Trump to rescind DACA this week.

What I have loved about this statement since I included it is that it asks educators to think about what their role is in their classrooms and with their students. We should always be asking what being part of an educational community means, how we want to live and learn and teach in this community, and more than anything, how we define “community.” Including such a strong and unequivocal statement establishes an ethos of equity and safety in our classrooms, a space for learning where undocumented students could hear from their professors and know that while total protection can’t be guaranteed, their professors will stand up and fight to keep them safe, just as they would do for all students.

This equity view is very important, as is the desire to rehumanize a group of individuals which is typically homogenized and totalized as a social “issue.” I believe that we tend to take a charity view of this issue, talking about “these poor undocumented immigrants,” but the reality is, they also have positive, hopeful stories as well, hopes and plans like other students, and also regular human lives and experiences. They are regular people and not a statistic, as an undocumented student of mine over the summer reminded our class. 

While this last thought was not included in the limited space of the Politico article, I am including it below. I speak of radical hope, and of remembering our history as a public university system, arguably the oldest in the country. It’s one I am very proud to be a part of as a student, an educator, a community member, and an ally:

I believe that collective activity which supports the idea of “sanctuary” as a co-authored political alternative to intimidation and fear is the only option we have. Sanctuary means acting in ways that actively resist and oppose terror. It means visibly and unequivocally protecting, valuing, and uniting behind undocumented students and colleagues as an expression of community. And I think an effect is that it means demanding that our country’s and city’s leaders refuse to support policies which are used to intimidate and divide our communities. To do anything else would be to turn our backs on our own history as well as our community members who need us now.  It’s a form of radical hope and it’s an honor to be a part of this now.

We ready, we comin’: the end of DACA and getting started

Hi Diana, I feel you, I know it’s scary…

Tonight I took part in a phone call last night held by United We Dream, a national organization fighting for social justice run by and for immigrant youth. Apparently over 2,000 people from all over the country including Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Oregon participated in the call, and the organizers fielded calls from immigrant youth and their supporters as they asked tough questions about the risks of going in for a renewal appointment, traveling, and other questions related to changes in their status. Information was shared, contact numbers and resources provided, and the silent host listening in shared in the communal response.

It was clear from the calls from DACA recipients, allies, and other community members that this is a difficult moment, human, messy, raw, and real. At one point a caller’s baby chirped in the background. Tears and anger choked the voices of both callers and the call leaders. Energetic and spiritual exchanges brought relief. We all breathed together as we experienced what this might mean for our families, our students, our community members. Two powerful themes emerged: uncertainty, and an absolutely unwillingness to stop and roll over. A beautiful, evocative phrase from one of the call organizers rang in my ears as I listened:

We are not defined by papers.

A White middle-class woman called and asked what she and other allies like her could do. The response was invigorating, earnest, assured. Allies need to continue to do what they’re doing. People with money and time to contribute need to call their representatives. Organizers need to be funded, which means organizations like United We Dream are welcoming donations. And trainings on how to stop deportations need to take place in local communities.

No matter what, we need to remember that we are not alone in this. We are not alone in believing that this fight is far from over. Again one of the organizers:

Our communities have fought way too hard to get us to this moment.

And my favorite quote of the evening, hollered together in joyful, unstoppable, hope:

We ready, we comin’! We ready, we comin’!

You’re goddamn right. Time to get started.


weareheretostay.org

The question of community: climate change, DACA, and environmental racism

Hurricane Harvey is striking Houston and 50 other counties in Texas, pounding the region with enough water to fill the football stadiums of the NFL and all colleges across the country 100 times. Nearly impossible to imagine. At the same time, one-third of Bangladesh is under water in a monsoon season that has been strongly augmented by climate change (also called climate chaos or climate disruption). Both disasters, the latter of which has led to the deaths of over 1,000 people thus far, relate to the larger issue of the abuse of the environment that we as a species have undertaken for profit.

Coincidentally, President Trump is under pressure to end the DACA program in the United States, threatened by impending lawsuits from a cadre of Republican lawmakers across the country. DACA, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an Obama-era program for amnesty which provides the opportunity for immigrants who came to the United States illegally as minors to work, live, and participate in society without the threat of deportation. About 750,000 individuals in the United States benefit from this program, which has historically been a controversial one but has emerged as a polarizing issue since the 2016 election. Trump’s leadership on Muslim travel bans and the pardoning of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who profiled immigrants and maintained a detainee “concentration camp,” have revealed our president’s quest for popularity with his conservative, nationalistic base through nativist, Anglocentric, xenophobic speechifying backed up by executive action and regional actions like SB4 in Texas.

The connection between climate change and the marginalization of immigrants and other people of color and poor people is powerful. Hurricane Harvey exemplifies the devastating impact natural disasters (if this term really applies) have on communities of color and poor communities, including immigrants who are undocumented, constituting a clear form of environmental racism that is often accepted under the logics of deregulation and capitalistic expansion. As Harvey’s destructive consequences reveal themselves, reports state that many undocumented immigrants are not contacting authorities for help during the disaster, producing widespread health, safety, and economic concerns. Even when people are able to return to their homes and begin to rebuild their communities, they will need to work to make up their losses, to continue their lives, and, unfortunately, to prepare for disasters that surely will come in the future.

However, if DACA is ended, its 85,000 beneficiaries who live in Houston will be left without the possibility of doing just this. Immigrants activists like Cesar Espinoza, an undocumented immigrant and guest on Democracy Now! this morning, speak of his community as it responds to these questions. “The fight continues,” Espinoza says:

For a lot of people, though, it’s a piece of devastating news. They’re relying on their deferred action, on their ability to work, so that they can rebuild, they can go back to work, and help their families rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, if DACA does get rescinded in the next couple of days, these young men and women are going to be left with nothing, the rug is going to be swept from under their feet, and who knows how long it will take for them to rebuild.


Image from the Houston Chronicle

Community is where the strength to face such possibilities comes from. The question is, who belongs to this community? Who should be responsible for the fall into, and struggle out of new and continued poverty, housing instability, health complications, and other problems that members of Houston’s incredibly diverse community will face? The answer is, all of Houston, and all of our country, should be. Undocumented immigrants are a part of all of our communities, and should be valued as contributing members with the same concerns other residents have. We all share the same civil rights to life, to live without discrimination, to the ability to participate freely in society and build a life with self-determination and dignity. Climate disasters reveal that our thinking is not there yet. But we still have time to reconsider the political and social disasters to come if we don’t.