The death of public schools

The New York Times has a powerful opinion video up this morning, about the mounting toll on teachers of the on-going demagoguing about public education in America. If you have ten minutes today, you should give it a watch. It is worth the time, and as a public school teacher, I can tell you, it is right on in its description of the state of our schools and the teaching profession today, not to mention to things kids are facing.

Being a teacher this election cycle has been particularly hard, harder than it is usually is (and it is almost never easy.) Across the country, a fear has risen that schools and teachers are indoctrinating or grooming children, with critical race theory or gender ideology or drag queens or…. pick your politicized bugaboo of choice. We’ve been accused of it all. Politicians, especially on the right, have made teachers and public schools Public Enemy #1 this election cycle. Look at the rhetoric from folks like Ron DeSantis, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, or any other mainstream Republican politician. Teachers are a political punching bag, one that largely cannot fight back. Here in Oklahoma, it is particularly bad. After the passage of a state law earlier this year restricting what things a teacher can or cannot say to students, Governor Kevin Stitt and his handpicked candidate for state superintendent, Ryan Walters, both won re-election running on platforms against public schools and teachers. Despite the heartening news from many elections in this country, Oklahoma was a dark spot for those who care about sanity and the future of public schools. Lies and false stories about pornography in libraries, about the grooming of children by teachers, of the need to censor books and teachers, and to fire or even prosecute teachers who are supposedly hurting children: it’s been infuriating and terrifying and disheartening, all at once.

This comes on top of the on-going after effects of the pandemic and Covid shutdowns, which were hugely damaging to student learning and social-emotional development. The gaps kids are facing in their knowledge, personal skills, and emotional bandwidth are borne by teachers, and we often are getting the blame as well when kids fail to succeed. Teaching, it hardly needs to be said, is a thankless profession almost like no other.

And it is starting to have an effect. As that NYT piece says, a recent survey of National Association of Education member teachers1 found that half of all teachers in America are looking for a way out of the profession. Take difficult, increasingly disrespectful kids; add in overbearing, unreasonable parents; layer on inane amounts of paperwork and documentation and monitoring, along with rapid cuts to school budgets and stagnating teacher wages and a shortage of materials and crumbling school infrastructure; and top it all off with the active animosity of half of our nations leaders and the voters who support them, and the question becomes not why are so many teachers quitting, but instead, what the hell is wrong with those of us who are still here? It is a fair question.

Lets be clear about something: the rapid decline of public schools and loss of teachers is not an accidental outcome of rational policy making. It is the deliberate strategy of an entire political movement in this nation over the last 30 years, to discredit, defund, and destroy public education, in favor of private religious instruction and for-profit education benefitting not the students, but the shareholders and elites behind those systems. Public education has been under attack for decades; the rise of charter schools and school vouchers has long been touted as a system of “parent choice” or “school accountability” or some kind of rightful reclaiming of tax dollars by those who feel entitled to not taking part in our shared commitment to educating children. What these things actually are, though, are ways for tax dollars to be siphoned out of public schools and into the pockets of those who still, despite their ever increasing wealth, feel like they don’t have enough wealth and control.

I am always reminded of this wonderful scene from It’s a Wonderful Life when I think about the greed and rapaciousness of wealth. In this watching, imagine as if George Bailey is defending the local school instead of the Building and Loan, and Mr. Potter as a greedy financial entity who sees a profit opportunity in the funds that should be used for educating our children, I think you’ll get my point:

The powers behind wealth and accumulation in this country see the meager public budgets of schools in every community, and they itch because they see dollars and cents that don’t belong to them. And so, they have found arguments and lies and scary stories that rile up community members, and discredit schools, and lay the groundwork for them to extract those dollars and cents. Its disgusting, and infuriating, and a microcosm of the American public sphere over the last 30 years.

The moral panics about schools and books and curriculums that have swept the nation over the last year are not some grassroots movement of concerned parents. Again, it is a deliberate strategy aimed at discrediting schools and laying the ground work to pull funding. And the ones who end up suffering the most? Teachers, and students. But it works because everyday people, regular parents and tax payers and community members, instead of getting positively involved in public schools and talking to teachers and becoming part of the PTA and other community groups, spend their time online listening to the lies and then spreading those lies and stoking fear and anger and doing the dirty work for those who are using their fear against them. That’s the most depressing part, for me: logging into social media, and seeing people who I know and love and who I thought cared about my family and children and schools, spreading rumors and lies and absolute bullshit about what us teachers are supposedly doing in our classrooms. Even though many of these people have never stepped a foot in a school or attended a PTA or Board meeting, or tried to take a positive role in really helping schools succeed.

Here’s the important thing to remember: teachers are not some scary “Other” existing out there somewhere. We are your neighbors, your friends, your family. When you share that scare-mongering video or meme about CRT in classrooms, or Drag Queen story hour, or groomers in classrooms, you are talking about people you know and who your purport to love and respect and care about. Teachers are normal, everyday human beings, doing our best every day to do a demanding, thankless job, and to do it well. When politicians and parents and community members work so hard to tear down schools for some abstract, ideological fear stoked in the fever swamps of the most extreme right, they all forget that what they are really tearing down is human beings, adults and children, who live our lives day in and day out in these school buildings together. Schools are more than just brick buildings down the street, or faceless bureaucracies and school boards: like any institution, schools are the sum of the human beings who live and work and cry and laugh and learn in those buildings. And when you try to tear a school down, what you end up doing is tearing down people.

1 Full transparency: I myself am a member of NEA, and its Oklahoma branch, the OEA, as well as the Tulsa Classroom Teacher Association.

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Election 2022: sanity for the win, and a personal political program

I’ve been sitting with the election results for the last week, pondering on what I think they mean, and how I interpret the results, free from the passions of election night and the immediate days after. And there were passions! Despite my very conscious and deliberate withdrawal from politics, as both a vocation and an obsession, I still am possessed by that person who majored in political science and worked in politics. Election night is still like the Super Bowl, and I get a thrill from tracking results from across the country. Its not necessarily about cheering for winners and losers (although I do certainly have preferences for outcomes), but it is more the process of vote counting and tracking legislative control and such. It is still a lot of fun for me! I had a great time watching the coverage, geeking with Steve Kornacki over the numbers, and monitoring specific races on my phone throughout the night, and the days after.

That said, I think Tuesday was by and large a heartening night, whether you are on the left or right and free from the extremism/radicalism of the edges. Andrew Sullivan, as usual, captured the feeling I share with him very well: “Which is to say that in this still-functioning, high turn-out unpredictable democracy, sane American voters just gave both parties a winning path back to the center. Whoever gets there first will win.” Andrew’s basic point is that the sane center asserted itself, rejecting both Trumpist, democracy-threatening right wing extremists, and out-of-touch, far left progressives, by delivering a close result and pushing back on the worst candidates and ideas on both sides, for the most part. Read his full piece for more details on where that pushback happened.

I think this is right take away from last Tuesday. Everyone agrees, even the former Trump media apparatus: Trump was the big loser of 2022. His candidates were shelled, his push to discredit democracy is being rejected, and other voices in the Republican Party are asserting themselves. Meanwhile, on the left, voters seem mostly comfortable with a sane, calm equilibrium, providing a wake up to the party this year, but also retaining some confidence that Democrats are the saner choice for America. Its up to the party to take the hint, especially in candidate choice. Biden should make it clear he is not running again, just like he vaguely promised in the last campaign. The Party has some emerging, reasonable voices out there, in the pragmatic mold of Barack Obama (Josh Shapiro, anyone? Keep an eye on the new governor of Pennsylvania.) Focus on pocketbooks and economic fairness, punt on the culture war, because the GOP has proven it is willing to take the most unpopular stances across the board and shoot itself in the foot time and again on everything from abortion to marriage to family autonomy. Don’t fight right wing extremism with left wing extremism. Being a sane voice isn’t a capitulation or cowardice; its the right move in a pluralistic democracy with a 50/50 split where you need to – in fact, I would argue you have a moral imperative to – appeal to as much of the electorate as is possible.

I am revealing my preferences here. I no longer work for the Democratic Party, nor do I identify with the Party beyond the designation on my voter card. But, I will never deny, I am a person of the left. I generally want Democrats to win, because I broadly agree with their policy choices, especially on economic and poverty issues, while still at this point holding them at arms length. I think this is a healthy attitude to take on politics, especially as I start to come out of the “political detox” I’ve been on over the last couple of years. In the wake of the election, I was reflecting on my own political commitments, and how I understand myself as a voter and citizen. Because, despite my theological commitment towards Hauerwas/Yoder/Anabaptist thought, and my growing rejection of the assumptions underlying a large chunk of modernity, I still understand that I am part of this polis called America, and I don’t feel like completely abandoning any attachment or commitment to it, and most importantly, to the people around me who are also a part of this grand fabric. Local issues concern me a lot more these days, especially on education and building strong, sustainable communities, but as I said above, I’ll never be able to escape the itch I have for politics, and I acknowledge that passion and also the inclination I have for it. Surely there is a path to goodness found in it for me.

So where have I come down on those aforementioned political commitments? Here is the basic gist of the notes I have been writing down:

  • a commitment to a politics that is class-based first and primarily, rather than any understanding of race, gender, sexual orientation, cultural or ethnic boundaries, or especially ideology. This has historically been the project of the left, and the turn away from a politics of class (and especially of the working and lower classes) towards essentializing narratives around identity and the political commitments that demands has been a huge detriment to the left in America.
  • farm-and-labor socialist policies, in the very best mold of figures like Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette, and Henry Wallace. This is NOT the socialism of the Squad, of the modern Social Democrats, or even of Bernie Sanders, despite my admiration for him and the work he has done to reduce the stigma of the title “socialist.” This is also not a Marxist socialism, but like I said, is more in the mold of the old farm and labor parties of the Midwest in the late 19th/early 20th century, with a tinge of the populism of folks like William Jennings Bryan (minus, of course, the racism.) This builds on my first bullet point, as a class-based politics that advocates for working, middle class, and poor folks is what I think is the best kind of politics, especially in a nation and world with a growing gap between the elite and rest. Which brings me to my next bullet
  • anti-elite, anti-wealth, anti-corporate. Not because money is inherently bad, not because of jealousy, or a desire to make the poor the rich, and the rich the poor. But because everyone should have enough; not too little, and not too much. Elitism and wealth strike at the very heart of democracy and the kind of equality and pluralism that is at the heart of the very best understanding of the American ideal.
  • in favor of democracy. I know it is in vogue these days to be a defender of democracy, especially on the left in the face of an anti-democratic right. There is also a strong contingent on the left, however, that is critical of democracy, especially if that democracy includes the voices of the “problematic.” But I do think democracy is a good thing, not for the outcomes it brings, but because of the voice it gives to all people. For me, democracy is part of my anti-elite, anti-wealth ethos. Everyone should have a voice equal to every other one. For this reason, I believe in political democracy, and in policies and programs that amplify the voice of all people, including expanding voting rights. I also support economic democracy, including policies that limit wealth accumulation, and give voice to workers in their work places.
  • pragmatism of idealism. All day, every day. I perhaps should have put this bullet (or perhaps second, behind the next bullet to come.) I do have strong ideological political commitments, stated above. But, pragmatism should color any ideological system. People have to come first, and a commitment to democratic norms and to what is popular and feasible among working people should be a strong factor in any politics. With that in mind…
  • moderate, calm, and rational politics, over and against extremism and radicalism of all kinds, left or right. I abandoned politics largely because I’m so sick of the extreme, the radical, and those who reject any form of compromise, conversation, acknowledgement of good intentions, or the inherent and equal rights and value of those we disagree with. Extremism is no virtue, especially in a democracy.
  • finally, a healthy skepticism of government and the power it can and does wield. This commitment puts me at odds with many of my fellow travelers on the left, especially in America’s current political culture. Democrats and the left have become the party of the institutions, of the status quo, and of the government. This is a distinctive quirk of the post-New Deal world and the success of the left in the first and middle part of the 20th century, and I get that. But its a dangerous place for the left to occupy, and I think it would behoove many of this side to remember that, historically and also contemporaneously, government has been a locus of elite power, and that often in defending the role and prerogative of government, we have done the work of defending elite power structures and maintaining a status quo that benefits a few at the expense of the many. Yes, programs like Social Security and Medicare have historically been powerful programs that lifted up the working poor; but to treat them like God’s own policies, in need of defending at all other costs, is a bad place to be in for the left. We would do well for a strong dose of healthy skepticism, and even a healthy, positive, local-focused type of libertarianism, not of the type that has been commandeered by the radical right, but that which has for a long time been the place of the left in a world where right wing and elite powers ran government and other institutions.

None of these political commitments, however, come before my identity as a Christian, and the ideological, political and social commitments that ties me to. In a choice between the two, my faith always wins, and I am at a place where it is very important to me to not dress up any worldly political position or choice in religious clothes. That is a danger that the Christian left and right in this country largely forget and/or don’t worry about, and I intend to keep pushing back against it, especially on the left, my home and thus the place I feel I can speak to more effectively.

So, does any of this mean I will be writing more about politics here? I honestly don’t know. Maybe. I got through phases where politics are more interesting to me, and then longer ones where they aren’t. So no telling. But I guess I wanted to lay down a marker, to remind myself and my readers that politics aren’t completely unimportant or uninteresting to me. But if I am going to engage in them here, I needed some guardrails and understandings in place, for myself more than anything else. I intend to keep this post in the front of my mind when I write about politics, and if I don’t, I hope you, my gracious readers, will redirect my gaze and push back against my worst impulses.

the word virtue

The word virtue: what a fate it has had in the last three hundred years! The fact that it is nowhere near so despised and ridiculed in Latin countries is a testimony to the fact that it suffered mostly from the mangling it underwent at the hands of Calvinists and Puritans. In our own days the word leaves on the lips of cynical high-school children a kind of flippant smear, and it is exploited in theaters for the possibilities it offers for lewd and cheesy sarcasm. Everybody makes fun of virtue, which now has, as its primary meaning, an affectation of prudery practiced by hypocrites and the impotent.

When Martiain – who is by no means bothered by such trivialities – in all simplicity went ahead to use the term in its Scholastic sense, and was able to apply it to art, a “virtue of the practical intellect,” the very newness of the context was enough to disinfect my mind of all the miasmas left in it by the ordinary prejudice against “virtue” which, it it was ever strong in anybody, was strong in me. I was never a love of Puritanism. Now at last I came around to the sane conception of virtue – without which there can be no happiness, because virtues are precisely the powers by which we can come to acquire happiness: without them, there can be no joy, because they are the habits which coordinate and canalize our natural energies and direct them to the harmony and perfection and balance, the unity of our nature with itself and with God, which must, in the end, constitute our everlasting peace.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain