Profit Motive

There’s a common thread developing in the right wing’s education policies. People like Betsy DeVos, on the national level. And Richard Corcoran, Speaker of the House here in Florida. They say we should:

  • Deal with struggling students by further crippling their public schools and then labeling them and their schools as “failures”;
  • Deal with educational “failures” by opening a proliferation of charter schools (that can pick and choose their students to make sure they meet test-score requirements) and private schools (that are exempt from test-score requirements);
  • Deal with growing teacher shortages not by improving autonomy, compensation and working conditions, but by opening more charter and private schools that don’t require certification or even training for their faculty … and by targeting de-certification of teacher unions;
  • Deal with constitutional barriers to public funding of religious schools by creating tax-dodge “scholarships” for students attending unregulated private schools;
  • And deal with school shootings not by restricting access to military weapons, but rather by arming teachers.

So what’s the common thread? An effort to convince us:

  • That our public schools are failing;
  • That our teachers are incompetent;
  • That what we need is “choice,” or at least the appearance of it, not improved resources for our existing public schools;
  • That charter and private schools are prima facie “better” than public schools;
  • And that everything they advocate is somehow aimed at supporting students, especially disadvantaged and minority students.

But what they’re really creating is a smokescreen, an ostensible justification for eliminating free, nonprofit public education and replacing it with ever-increasing profit opportunities for the education entrepreneurs. Ensuring that for-profit schools’ costs will be lower by exempting them from testing standards, curriculum regulations, and certification requirements. And guaranteeing a steady cash flow with direct and indirect government funding.

Why? Same motivation as always: to repay the people who donate to their campaigns and hang out at the same country clubs—by ensuring the sanctity of their profit margins.

And that’s the motivation behind their school safety proposal too. There are more than three million public school teachers in the United States. If they deal with the threat of more school shootings by arming teachers—even if they arm only 20 percent of them—they’ve just handed the arms manufacturers and their NRA lobbyists something like $300,000 in additional sales.

And they’ll likely get the added benefit of eliminating some of those pesky teachers, too—either because they’ll resign rather than carry, or because their handguns will be no match for the active shooters’ still-legal assault rifles.

Another School Shooting

And, inevitably, another blizzard of legislative leaders blaming it on mental illness.

“It’s not the guns,” they say. “They can always find a way to kill. They can make explosives out of fertilizer. They can drive trucks onto sidewalks. They can use machetes and knives and box-cutters.”

Well, yes, it’s true that people afflicted with mental illness—at least the homicidal ones—will always be able to find a way to kill. But it is the guns. Specifically, it’s the semi-automatic assault rifles.

It’s not likely Nikolas Cruz could have killed 17 and injured another 14 in less than five minutes with any weapon other than a semi-automatic rifle. Nor would Stephen Paddock have been able to kill 58 and injure more than 400—at a range of 450 meters—in less than ten minutes. Semi-automatic weapons like these were specifically developed for only one purpose: to kill or grievously injure as many people as possible as rapidly as possible.

Semi-automatic weapons are suited specifically and explicitly for killing people—human beings, not deer or elephants or inanimate targets. And they accomplish that very well—just ask any veteran who’s been trained on an M-4.

I admit it’s unlikely we’ll be able to eliminate all mass shootings by eliminating semi-automatics. But maybe we can at least make such shootings less common. And maybe that will give us time to work on our mental health problem; maybe, if we can stanch the proliferation of semi-automatic weapons, we can at least reduce the number of casualties while we search for ways to treat the underlying mental illnesses.

And that will take time. Not all mental illness is presently preventable; not all cases lend themselves to timely diagnosis and treatment; and not all illnesses can be effectively managed, much less cured. And it’s worth pointing out that mental illness affects people in other countries too. And it affects women as well as men. But mass shootings occur disproportionately in the U.S. And the perpetrators have been more than 90% male.

The Fourth Irony

It may be that only English teachers know there are three kinds of irony—verbal, situational, and dramatic. (It’s likely that only English teachers care about any of that.)

But it turns out there’s a fourth type, which is the inevitable result of the Florida legislature’s passage of a law that allows any district resident, not just parents of students, to challenge any instructional material used in a district school—on such eminently predictable grounds as teaching things like evolution and global warming.

But a petitioner in Santa Rosa County seems to have retired the cup by challenging the inclusion of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 for profanity and violence. That temperature—451oF—is of course the ignition point for paper; Bradbury’s novel was created as an urgent warning about the dangers of banning books.

So the Santa Rosa County attempt at censorship-by-wackadoodle makes it clear that there’s a fourth kind of irony—at least in Florida, at least in Santa Rosa County. The question is whether to call it educational irony, or intellectual irony. Or just plain stupidity.

A Monumental Proposal

Maybe we don’t need to remove the Confederate memorial statues.

Maybe we only need to remove the plaques that say who they were—rendering them appropriately anonymous and allowing them to slide into the same kind of obscurity that’s befallen most of the civic sculpture littering the American landscape today. Or maybe, if the statues really are necessary for the preservation of history, then we should rewrite the plaques to get the history right.

For openers, every plaque should begin by saying “This is one of the soldiers who lost the Civil War. His failure—the defeat of the Confederate Army—allowed the United States to remain united, grow, and become one of the most prosperous and influential nations on earth.”

Additional inscriptions might include thoughts like these—

“In his battles against the Union forces, he was literally an enemy of the United States. Just like the British soldiers who opposed the Colonial forces during the Revolution—and who, apparently through some oversight, have never been honored with statues like this one.”

“He was fighting against the unification of states that had been won piecemeal from not only the British, but also the Dutch, the French, the Spanish—and, of course, the Native Americans. He was fighting for an approach to government that defined our country not as a union, but as a confederation of still-independent states. Sort of like Iraq. Or the NFL.”

“He was fighting against the inexorable progress of technological and economic changes that began in the Industrial Revolution—which meant he was fighting mostly for the benefit of the wealthy plantation owners, struggling to preserve an antiquated agrarian economy that depended for its viability on an abundant, unpaid labor force.”

“He was fighting not just for the preservation of slavery, which had existed in one form or another throughout history’s previous millennia, but for the perpetuation of the Confederacy’s ‘peculiar institution,’ a unique perversion of the practice based on the dehumanization of an entire race.”

“He was fighting not to justify the taking of slaves as spoils of war—as the Roman Empire did to the Greeks, for example—but to sanction the enslavement of an entire race with the rationalization that they were somehow inferior, even subhuman. He was fighting for economic expedience, and against biological truth.”

“He was fighting against the course of human events, against freedom and democracy, against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He was fighting against America.”

No Attaboy

There are times when language matters. There are times when what’s said, and how it’s said, and by whom—and what’s not said, and by whom—all matter a lot.

And you can trust an old English teacher to notice those times. This is one of them.

The president’s first statement about the violence in Charlottesville, as lots of people immediately noted, contained an ad-libbed escape clause for his alt-right constituents: he blamed the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Looking up from the prepared statement, he repeated “on many sides.”

There were, of course, only two sides—the alt-right “rally” participants on one side, and the counter-protestors on the other. But words like “alt-right,” “white supremacist,” “K.K.K.” and “neo-Nazi” never crossed the president’s lips.

The criticism of that rhetorical failure was pretty close to universal, with the only notable exceptions being the supremacists themselves. And yet it took another two days for the president to condemn those groups by name (something like twenty times longer than it took him to condemn Ken Frazier when the Merck CEO resigned from his manufacturing council).

He identified them, reading robotically from the videoprompter, as “criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

And people immediately started lining up to give him credit for finally doing the right thing.

But he did not do the right thing. His delivery was wooden, expressionless—in marked contrast with his usual rhetorical excesses. He was, as several people have noted, clearly speaking in the manner of a hostage with a script his captors have demanded he recite as the price of his continued survival. Sort of like those old movies in which the American POW cleverly inserts some code words that tell the home folks he doesn’t really believe what he’s being forced to say.

In fact, there were code words—even in this second statement. There was yet another escape hatch for the white supremacists—more subtle in its wording, but still an escape hatch. He blamed the violence on “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”

Other hate groups”? Doesn’t “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists” kind of cover it? Who’s left?

Oh, right. The same ones as in his first statement. The counter-protestors. He still doesn’t deserve an attaboy—from anyone but the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.

Whither Expertise?

According to a front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review, “The Diplomats Can’t Save Us.” (An accompanying story says “The Generals Can’t Either.”)

As the story continues on the jump page, there’s a series of quotations from career diplomats “asking if their services are still valued”; describing “a toxic, troubled environment and organization” and “complete and utter disdain for our expertise” and “a slow unraveling of the institution.”

I understand that looming international dangers become ever more urgent when the State Department is dominated by neophytes and amateurs, and that those dangers can include human rights abuses, terrorist attacks, and even war. And I am appropriately frightened.

But that doesn’t keep me from noticing that those jump-page quotations could just as easily have come—with absolutely no editing required—from teachers in America’s public school districts.

We seem to have blundered into an era in which expertise is demeaned and incompetence is ignored—not only in the State Department, but also in the Education Department, and in many local Boards of Education. Not to mention the West Wing.

Florida Schools’ Chaos Is Worse Than Reported

There’s increasingly broad coverage of the mess Florida legislators are making of Florida education. Education Week has run a dozen major stories in July alone, and the Washington Post just added its voice under the headline “Florida’s education system—the one Betsy DeVos cites as a model—is in chaos.”

The stories in these and other journals have focused mainly on two recently enacted laws. The first (HB 7069) requires public school districts to share capital funding, in addition to operating funds, with charter schools. It’s already resulted in a lawsuit filed by one school district, challenging the requirement as a violation of the state constitution, and other school districts are expected to join the suit. The second law (HB 989) allows any district resident, not just parents of students, to challenge any instructional material being proposed for use in a district school—for any reason, however off-the-wall. Since use of the challenged materials may be subject to injunction pending the outcome of a hearing, the net effect of the law may be nothing short of sanctioned censorship-by-wackadoodle.

But the chaos is actually going to be worse than what will result from these two laws alone—because there’s a third recently-enacted law (SB 436) that’s aimed directly at nullifying church/state separation in public schools by disingenuously claiming to “safeguard” students’ and teachers’ rights to express their religious beliefs while in public schools. In case you’re wondering, this is not aimed at protecting Muslim students from harassment. Nor is it aimed at securing equal visibility for annual observances like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Tet, and so forth in addition to Christmas.

What is it aimed at? Remember where Florida’s educational patron saint, Betsy DeVos, got all her experience with education: Christian private schools in Michigan. Florida’s educational chaos is aimed at creating the kind of Biblical-scale Chaos from which only one kind of Order can emerge: More charter schools (many of which, in Florida, are already self-identified as “Christian”) and an enormous voucher-like “scholarship” program to funnel public tax dollars to private schools (also heavily “Christian” in Florida).

Charter Scams

newpoint

The big news is that a grand jury has indicted two Ohio men affiliated with this company, which used to manage charter schools in five Florida counties, and two of its vendor companies. The charges include fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds. You can read the whole story here—

Newpoint indicted on fraud charges related to theft, money laundering

But the main lesson seems to me to be that the reformers’ zeal for deregulating charter schools has created precisely the kind of environment scam artists like these are looking for. And now the Florida legislature is throwing even more money into the pot.

 

Wackadoodles Ascendant

I used to think the characters in Carl Hiaasen’s novels were masterfully comic exaggerations.

That was before I moved to Florida and discovered that Hiaasen’s fiction is far from fictional. In Florida, fringe types aren’t just inescapably vocal and visible, they’re increasingly empowered—by the state legislature.

For example, HB 989 (also known as the Return of Book-Burning Act) now requires every Florida public school district to appoint “an unbiased and qualified hearing officer” to hear any complaint from any resident about any textbook or other instructional material approved for use in the district. From any resident, not just from parents of students.

HB 989 was passed by the legislature and is now law in Florida. It does not provide any guidance for vetting a potential hearing officer, for ensuring the candidate is in fact unbiased, or for determining what the necessary qualifications would be. Nor does it provide any guidance for use in evaluating residents’ complaints.

But we can guess what many of those complaints will involve, because we know which state Representative sponsored the bill, and that gives us a pretty good idea of who wrote it. The legislator’s constituents include an organization known as the Florida Citizens’ Alliance (FLCA), and the FLCA website identifies a handful of specific targets for its efforts “to stop the indoctrination of our children.” These include not only the expected targets, like Common Core standards and “pornographic” novels, but also transgender student rights, gun control, and even social studies texts that identify the United States as a “democracy” instead of a “constitutional republic.”

The FLCA website is of course soliciting volunteers statewide to be trained to become hearing officers. Teachers of social studies, literature and language arts, and STEM subjects should be bracing themselves.

Florida, Chapter 2

Florida’s Charter Aggrandizement Act (also known as HB 7069) is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Broward County School Board. (For those who live elsewhere, Fort Lauderdale is probably the best-known city in Broward County. And yes, Florida has only one school district per county, strange as that may seem to people from the Northeast.)

HB 7069 is the one that, in addition to providing extra incentives for new charter schools, also requires all Florida school districts to share their capital funding to help underwrite the construction of those new schools. In addition to specifically challenging the law’s charter school giveaways, Broward County’s suit seeks to have the entire law declared unconstitutional because of its shotgun approach to school reform. HB 7069 includes provisions dealing with everything from mandatory elementary school recess periods to standardized testing to teacher bonuses—in violation of Florida’s constitutional requirement that every bill be limited to a single subject.

Observers expect several other counties’ school boards to join in the suit, notably including Miami-Dade County. It could be fun to watch.