Category Archives: First Hand: Occupy Wall Street

My reflections on Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park.

A Case for Teacher Tenure: The David Suker Story

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PART I (Lessons from a Bureaucracy)

David Suker is a New York City native. When it came time for him to choose a college, this young white man opted for Howard University, one of the most prestigious black colleges in the nation. He disliked the de facto segregation in the schools he attended here in New York, so he placed himself in a completely different educational setting when he got the chance.

This type of awareness is rare for someone so young. It is even rarer for someone so young to allow this awareness to guide him in making such a major life decision. Two decades later, it would be this awareness and courage that got David Suker terminated from his position as a teacher in the New York City Department of Education.

Shortly after graduating college, David returned to New York as a newly minted history teacher. He sought to make an impact on the school system that was so repugnant to his sense of justice. It was 1998 and New York City’s school system was called the Board of Education. By that time, the Board had earned a reputation as an inefficient and incompetent government bureaucracy that had outlived its usefulness in the private sector worshipping decade of the 1990s.

But David Suker’s problems with the Board of Education were not born out of impatience with the fact that it did not operate like a sleek corporation. His problems stemmed from being a first-hand witness to the injustice it perpetuated. The booming economy of the 1990s caused a teacher shortage, which meant that David could have plied his trade in almost any school he desired. What does it say about his character that he chose to start his career at a juvenile detention center in the Bronx, a place even the most fearless teachers dare not tread? While the education reformers were meeting around oaken conference tables scheming over how to remake the school system in their own image, David Suker would be meeting with the most forgotten children in the city to help them remake themselves.

It did not take long for him to witness as a teacher the types of injustices in the school system that had so repulsed him as a student. The children he was teaching in the detention center were being routinely brutalized by the corrections officers. When David questioned why this was being tolerated, he was promptly reassigned to an offsite office in order to shut him up. A week later, a principal named Robert Zweig picked him up off the scrap heap, so to speak, and hired him as a teacher for a program known as Offsite Educational Services. He would help children in places like housing projects and drug rehab centers get their GEDs. Once again, David Suker would help give the forgotten children of New York City one last chance.

Like most teachers, David started hitting his stride after his fourth year or so of teaching. The students with whom he worked had been written off by the rest of the school system. They had one last shot at some form of graduation by getting their GEDs. David Suker prepared his students for their GEDs not through rote test prep but by helping them appreciate the art of learning. Instead of drilling them in how to game an exam, he helped them navigate the New York Times in order to demonstrate how reading helps make sense of the wider world. In a program that routinely helped a mere 15% of students get their GEDs, David Suker was able to help 100 students get their equivalencies in a span of 3 years. By 2004, David Suker had arrived as a teacher.

Unfortunately, he was not the only one who had arrived. As David was giving his kids one last chance at a better life, Michael Bloomberg was getting his first chance at killing New York City’s public schools. Bloomberg did away with the clunky Board of Education and replaced it with a supposedly streamlined Department of Education headed by himself. To ensure this new system would run like a corporate machine, he installed middle management types in supervisory positions all over the city. Principals, superintendents and even his chancellor, Joel Klein, would institute Bloomberg’s reforms without dissent or delay. For David Suker’s “district” of forgotten children, known as District 79, Bloomberg installed Cami Anderson as superintendent. Anderson was a darling of Joel Klein. She would later use the slash-and-burn method of school reform she learned here in New York City with great effect as Newark’s schools chancellor.

In order to establish her reformer credentials, Anderson sought to shake up this “failing” district. The children of District 79, the children who were reared first under “Giuliani Time” and then under Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk duchy; the children who had seen their neighborhoods gentrified; the children who had their social services cut year in and year out; the children who had been the biggest victims of Bloomberg’s crusade to turn New York City into a playground for billionaires; the children to whom David Suker had dedicated his career apparently were not making “adequate yearly progress” in filling out the correct bubbles on standardized exams. District 79 was ripe for “reform”.

The reform of District 79 could not follow the template that had been established in other districts. There were no charter schools looking to co-locate there. Charter operators like Eva Moskowitz do not exactly clamor to take on the types of students with whom David Suker worked. Instead of co-locating, Cami Anderson would “reorganize”. She consolidated the various incarnations of Offsite Educational Services into a handful of programs in order to run them on the cheap. To save even more cash she required every teacher in the district to reapply for their jobs, including David Suker. This was a way of circumventing tenure to get rid of expensive veteran teachers. Since the quality of David’s teaching was never in doubt, since he was not quite an expensive 15 or 20-year veteran and since Teach for America wunderkinds were not knocking on the door to teach in District 79, David was rehired by an independent panel of administrators, teachers and parents. This gave David a front-row seat to Anderson’s criminal shakedown of the forgotten children of District 79.

Helping Anderson shakedown the district was none other than Robert Zweig, the principal of Offsite Educational Services who had hired David Suker back in 1998. Zweig was Anderson’s inside man. He helped Anderson turn Offsite Educational Services, a typically utilitarian Board of Education moniker, into “GED Plus”, a typically Madison Avenue Department of Education moniker. It was an open secret that Zweig was in line to be promoted to Deputy Superintendent for his role in helping Anderson “reform” District 79. This meant that Zweig and his school were on the bureaucratic radar. Everything he did was being watched by Anderson, Joel Klein and possibly even Bloomberg himself.

This news did not bode well for David Suker. Part of being a great teacher is being an advocate for one’s students. If he did not have enough resources for his students, Zweig would hear about it. If students did not have access to proper facilities, Zweig would hear about. Other teachers at OES or rather, “GED Plus”, would also hear about it. David was a textbook example of the type of teacher tenure was designed to protect: the one who did not allow administrators to shortchange his children. His courage was a thorn in Zweig’s side, as Zweig would remind him every year by writing him up for one petty infraction or another. There was that time in 2004 when Zweig gave David a “U” rating for the year for being absent 11 times when the contractually allotted number of absences is 10. 11 absences hardly constitutes a case of gross absenteeism, and Zweig knew the 11th absence was due to David’s plane making an emergency landing on another continent, but he took the opportunity to give him a “U” anyway as a friendly reminder of who called the shots at OES.

However, friendly reminders were not enough anymore. Zweig had to show Cami Anderson that he inoculated his teachers against opposing her reforms. Instead of just being a schoolhouse rabble rouser, David Suker became a liability, someone who threatened Zweig’s coveted climb up the bureaucratic ladder. In 2007, when OES was in the process of being rebranded “GED Plus” and half the teachers stood to lose their jobs, the staff had an end-of-year meeting with Zweig where they applauded his many years of service. This applause was music to Zweig’s bureaucratic-climbing ears. Of course, only one teacher questioned the applause. Only one teacher asked why his colleagues were being fired for the “failure” of the program while the principal stood to be promoted. That teacher was David Suker.

At the last graduation ceremony for OES before its rebranding, some students hung up scathing cartoons they had drawn criticizing the program’s administrators. It was doubtless the students had been feeling the pressure of Cami Anderson’s reforms as well and were not happy about them. Principal Zweig saw the hand of David Suker behind this, since David was both a critic of these reforms and a popular figure among the students. Zweig had the assistant principal question David about it. Nobody in the administration bought David’s denials. It was clear that David would be a marked man when he returned next school year to work in GED Plus.

But nothing happened that year. In fact, the 2007-2008 school year was the only time David was not written up or given a “U” rating. Instead, Zweig was being investigated by the DOE for having an affair with one of his assistant principals. This assistant principal was also under investigation for a Youtube video that had surfaced of her rolling around on the floor in front of her students in an ambrosia-induced haze, ambrosia in this case being a cocktail of liquor and cannabis. These investigations meant they were too preoccupied to harass David Suker. By the end of the school year, Zweig learned he would not become Anderson’s deputy superintendent after all. Instead, he would get the special title of “Assistant” to the Superintendent and remain the principal of GED Plus. The uncovering of his schoolhouse love affair led to the dissolution of his marriage. One can imagine the type of mood Robert Zweig was in at this point. Someone was going to pay come next school year.

PART II (When the Conscience Calls)

In the summer of 2008, the Democratic Party was set to nominate its first black candidate for president at their convention in Denver, Colorado. Ever the history teacher, David Suker was there. As he was taking in the mountain scenes from the highway on his motorcycle, a big rig clipped him and sent him crashing onto the side of the road. The accident broke his jaw and gave him a serious case of road rash. Five days later, the school year started for teachers back in New York City. David Suker showed up to work that day with his jaw wired shut and covered in bandages from head to toe. His colleagues and doctors exhorted him to take some time off work so he could properly heal. A teacher without the ability to speak is like a major league pitcher without the ability to throw. So David placed himself on the disabled list until he was able to get back into the game.

Little did he know that his motorcycle crash was an adumbration for what would become of his career. David Suker turned the corner alright. Unfortunately, this corner led to a dead end.

Upon his return from the accident, David encountered a principal Robert Zweig with little appetite for controversy. Instead of allowing David to teach students, where he would surely find something else about which to complain, he put David on sentry duty in a stairwell of GED Plus. He would only be allowed to work with kids again once he passed a physical and mental evaluation by DOE doctors. David passed these evaluations, at which point he went back to work with the children of GED Plus. However, as soon as he was put back in the game, he was taken right back out again. David Suker was served notice that he was to report to the rubber room.

Why David Suker was rubber roomed at the start of 2009 was a mystery at first. Teachers in his position rarely discovered the allegations against them before they went to a termination hearing, the dreaded 3020a. Only later would David discover the supposed “misconduct” for which he was rubber roomed. It had to do with the way he dealt with two different students on two separate occasions. One was a troubled girl who started cursing out David Suker while filling out her GED application. David took her application away, threw it in the garbage and invited her back to try to fill it out again when she was in a less belligerent mood, which the girl eventually did. The second incident involved a girl who had threatened to kill any gay people in the room. She used her fingers to resemble a gun and started yelling “buck, buck, buck”. Not sure if there actually were any gay students in the room at the time, and not willing to take his chances, David asked the girl to leave so she could work on her own, which she did. These were the charges for which David Suker was rubber roomed for over a year. Even by the DOE’s malleable standards, these were frivolous accusations. This is why he was eventually returned to work without having to go through a 3020a hearing. This time he was sent to work at a site with more direct supervision, another “last chance” facility for students known as Bronx Regional.

David Suker was horrified at what he saw at Bronx Regional. Students who, by state law, were entitled to extra education services because they had learning or emotional disabilities were instead required to sign away their rights to those services. There was no library or independent study area for students who wanted to prepare for their GEDs. The administration had effectively segregated the school by race: students from the Dominican Republic occupied the 2nd floor and black students, both African-American and African immigrants, occupied the first floor. There was no investment by the school or district in curricular materials, which meant each teacher was on their own to teach whatever they saw fit in their subject areas. In short, these neediest of students were not provided with anything with which to make good on their last chance. It was as if the system was shutting the last door that was open to them.  This is what Cami Anderson’s reforms had wrought upon District 79. It was never easy for David Suker to remain silent before. It would be impossible for him to do so now.

So David did what he knew was right. During a panel sponsored by National Public Radio, he accused the DOE of “educational genocide”. The racial segregation he witnessed at Bronx Regional as a teacher was the flipside of the same segregation he saw in NYC as a student. The more things had changed, the more they remained the same. The only difference was that resources were dwindling and corruption was increasing in Bloomberg’s DOE. David would bring these points home to chancellor Dennis Walcott himself many times during his appearances at the Panel for Educational Policy. Appearances like these were part of what put David Suker on the DOE’s radar. The event that truly caused a blip, however, was Occupy Wall Street.

David’s trenchant stance against the DOE’s reforms was part of the dissenting spirit in the air of those days of Occupy. Towards the start of the 2011 school year, a handful of protestors started sleeping over in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. On their third evening of protest, well before what they were doing had caught on, they were joined by David Suker. Over the ensuing weeks, David became a conspicuous figure in many of Occupy’s marches. As the Occupy movement grew, so did the skittishness of the NYPD. The police’s tactic of “kettling” peaceful marchers led to a surfeit of arrests. Among those arrests was David Suker himself. Expectedly, his name and face were plastered in the local newspapers more than a few times. These articles were printed on Friday, November 4. By Monday, November 7, David returned to his school to find out the DOE was, once again, placing him in the rubber room.

They were not going to release him this time. For all of the trouble he had caused during Cami Anderson’s shakedown of District 79; for all of the times he had accused the DOE of “educational genocide”; and for all of the times his name was printed in the media, they were going to make David Suker finally pay. While he was sitting in the rubber room, the DOE thatched together a bunch of minor unrelated charges. They were hoping the aggregate of these charges would result in his termination.

The first set of charges was in step with the DOE’s tactic of piecing together disparate frivolities to make the teacher out to be a menace:

“SPECIFICATION 1 : On or about September 16, 2011 Respondent followed teacher Yanira Rodriguez into the guidance office saying, in a manner causing her to feel threatened, words to the effect of may it be the last time you talk about me behind my back.

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about October 3, 2011 , Respondent acted in a disruptive manner during a staff meeting by leaving the room twice while a colleague, Guidance Counselor Jackie Rangel, tried to address a comment Respondent

made and making comments to the effect of

a. I do not appreciate people talking about me.

b. We have to protect our jobs. There are  administrators looking to get people out.

SPECIFICATION 3: Respondent was arrested  on November 2, 2011 and failed to report the arrest in a timely manner as required by Chancellor’s Regulation C-105.”

The DOE did not stop here. Usually at 3020a hearings, the charges are broken up into individual “specifications” of varying degrees of seriousness. But in the case of David Suker, the DOE came up with separate groupings of specifications, as if his transgressions were so heinous and frequent they defied a single list. However, the likelier scenario was the DOE looked at the charges above, decided they were not enough to warrant termination and invented more. With David languishing in the rubber room, the DOE dredged up their second set of specifications:

“SPECIFICATION 1: Respondent was excessively absent in that he was absent on the following dates:

a. September 15,2011 – Thursday

b. September 21 , 2011 – Wednesday

c. September 22,2011 – Thursday

d. September 23, 2011 – Friday

e. October 5,2011 – Wednesday

f. October 17,2011 – Monday

g. October 25,2011 – Tuesday

h. October 27,2011 – Thursday

I. October 31 , 2011 – Monday

j. November 3,2011 – Thursday

k. November 4,2011 – Friday

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about October 24, 201 1 Respondent, at Town Hall meetings held in the auditorium of the Bronx Regional High  School:

a. Acted in an unprofessional and disruptive manner by causing students to make excessive noise and be uncooperative

during a presentation provided by the  New York City Police Department.

b. Questioned publicly why the police were  in the building.

c. Publicly noted his dislike of the police.

d. Said that he had been arrested and beaten by the police.

e. Showed a scar on his head that he claimed came from being beaten by police.

f. Stated words to the effect that the school practices segregation.

g. Exchanged high-fives and raised fist gestures with students.

h. Brought his students to attend two periods of the Town Hall meetings instead of just the one as directed.

SPECIFICATION 3: Respondent was arrested on November 6, 2011 and failed to report the arrest in a timely manner as required by Chancellor’s Regulation C-I 05.

SPECIFICATION 4: On or about February 13, 2009, Respondent threw Student LG’s* GED test application into the garbage can and directed her to leave the room when she refused to participate in a game of Jeopardy. (*Students’ names to be provided prior to trial.)

SPECIFICATION 5: On or about February 15, 2009, Respondent refused to allow student LG to enter his classroom requiring her to work alone.

SPECIFICATION 6: On or about the dates below, Respondent directed Student EB* to work independently and did not permit her to remain in his class:

a. February 27, 2009

b. March 3,2009”

This grouping of specifications reads like a what’s what in the defiant career of David Suker. Everything for which the DOE had already harassed him were in there, from “excessive” absences to failing to report his arrests in a “timely manner”. Even the accusation regarding the two students for which he had already been rubber roomed resurfaced, a blatant case of double jeopardy. The cherry on top, however, was his supposed “disruption” of a “town hall” meeting. The meeting was actually an assembly in which the students of Bronx Regional listened to lectures from NYPD officers on the pitfalls of violence. This violence was the result of Bronx Regional’s segregation of Dominican and black students. The DOE alleged that, during the assembly, David Suker questioned why the police were in the building. He even displayed a scar he had received as a result of a beat down from a friendly NYPD officer. He then supposedly committed the most treacherous act of which a teacher can be accused: he exchanged “high fives” with his students. It is amazing how such vile behavior went unreported by the New York Post, complete with a picture of David Suker sporting devil horns.

Yet, these evil deeds still were not enough for the DOE. With David Suker languishing in the rubber room, they continued scrambling to find things that could get him out of the door once and for all. Even with a 3020a process incredibly skewed against the teacher, there still might not have been enough at this point to terminate him. Then in January, three months and 9 specifications into David Suker’s rubber room stint, the head of the Administrative Trials Unit (the group that brings charges against teachers), Theresa Europe, sent a letter to DOE investigators. The letter revealed that David Suker had a daughter who attended an exclusive public high school in Harlem. Apparently, the address that David listed was not where his daughter really lived. This was the basis for the final set of charges:

“SPECIFICATION 1: On or about 2001 to present, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education which listed addresses where neither he nor his daughter, a student attending Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, lived.

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about December 1, 2006, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education with the intent to

defraud the Department by improperly obtaining admission of his daughter into the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering.

SPECIFICATION 3: On or about October 4, 2001, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education with the intent to defraud the Department by improperly obtaining admission of his daughter to a school she was not zoned for.”

These charges were an incredible stretch. High schools are open to students of all 5 boroughs of the city. David listed his daughter’s address as in the Bronx. These facts alone should have been enough for the hearing officer to dismiss this set of charges out of hand. However, the DOE went through the trouble of sending investigators to follow David Suker’s daughter. Investigators noted that she lived with her mother in the Bronx. They even noted the exact route she took to get to the train every morning. Stalking a young girl sounds like a charge over which a teacher would terminated. Yet, DOE investigators maintain their employment with the same exact type of behavior.

After this third set of specifications was drawn up, Theresa Europe’s office expedited David Suker’s case directly to the 3020a. The hearing officer was Eleanor Glanstein. She listened to the arguments of the DOE’s lawyer, Nancy Ryan, and David’s union-appointed lawyer, Steven Friedman. It turned out to be the usual kangaroo court. Glanstein gave Nancy Ryan tremendous latitude in bringing in last-minute “evidence” and witnesses, a practice that went largely uncontested by the union lawyer. Any reporter, pundit or reformer who believes teachers are protected by an impregnable wall of tenure should sit in on a few 3020a hearings. DOE lawyers act like schoolyard bullies. Arbitrators act like indifferent monitors who permit the bullying to take place. When the hearing ended in May 2012, David Suker knew he did not have a chance to keep his career.

The school year ended soon thereafter. David started summer vacation not knowing if he was going to have a job come next school year. The ante was especially high at this point since David’s wife was pregnant. It was a real possibility that, even before his son took his first breath, David would have no way to provide for him. Then, just as the 2012 school year was set to begin, David Suker learned his fate: termination. Glanstein’s written decision went through every one of the charges. She found David Suker guilty of the vast majority of specifications. The lynchpin of her entire decision was the matter of David’s daughter’s residence.

Needless to say, he was not about to let this decision stick. Like so many other wrongfully terminated teachers from the DOE, he took his case to the New York State Supreme Court. Throughout most of its history, the New York State Supreme Court has been reluctant to overturn the decisions of labor arbitrators for fear of compromising the arbitration process. Over the past few years, however, the courts have been overturning these decisions with unprecedented frequency. Even with terminations that get overturned, it is rare for a justice of the Supreme Court to question the DOE’s investigation. They assume arbitrators are correct in what they deem to be the facts of the case. They also assume that the teacher is guilty. At most, all a teacher can hope for is a ruling that the arbitrator’s penalty is “shocking to the conscience”. Fortunately for David, his case would be heard by a justice who saw through the entire witch hunt that comprised his termination.

Justice Alice Schlesinger’s decision is a devastating takedown of Glanstein’s termination, her guilty verdicts and the entire DOE investigation. The start of Schlesinger’s ruling (towards the bottom of page 11) suggests the not-so-impartial nature of David’s supposedly impartial DOE hearing:

“The ALJ recommended the penalty of termination. In doing so, she first summarized the number of charges for which she had found Suker guilty. She noted that they involved excessive absenteeism, unprofessional conduct toward a colleague, inappropriate and disruptive behavior at a school assembly, failing to follow correct procedures in dealing with two students in 2009, and failing to report one arrest in a timely manner. A necessary query here is whether the ALJ would have recommended termination if these were all the findings, in other words, findings related only to an assortment of unrelated conduct involving a politically charged assembly, an incident of rudeness to another teacher, taking too many days off without obtaining formal permission, failing by a few days in not reporting his arrest at a demonstration, and failing to follow correct procedures regarding two disruptive students almost three years before the Charges had been brought and which had earlier been investigated. I suggest the answer would have been no and that a lesser penalty would have been imposed, particularly since none of the above findings had anything to do with the quality of Suker’s teaching. If the penalty had been termination simply on these findings, it truly would have shocked the judicial conscience as being harsh. Even the very zealous attorney representing the DOE in her closing statement acknowledged this fact…”

In other words, the first two groups of specifications alone were not enough to terminate David Suker. They were a string of petty, unrelated charges that would have truly “shocked the conscience” if used as the sole grounds for his termination. The charges involving the disruptive students back from 2009, aside from being an example of double jeopardy, alleged that David merely did not follow the school’s ladder of referral for dealing with such students, hardly an offense for which a teacher should have their license revoked. This is a fact the DOE themselves realized when they released him from his first rubber room stint without penalty.

Instead, the arbitrator based her termination on the supposedly fraudulent address David Suker listed for his daughter. Schlesinger noted that the DOE lawyer’s plea for termination based upon this one charge took up seven pages of the hearing’s transcript. The lawyer characterized Suker’s conduct in this regard as “criminal”. Schlesinger, on the other hand, characterized these charges, and the termination upon which they were based, as a violation of his tenure rights.

The fact is that David did put down an address at which his daughter did not live on her application for elementary school. This was in 2001. The fact is that David did put down a false address for his daughter on her application to middle school. This was in 2006. He did this for various reasons, not the least of which was he did not have a stable residence. For David, it was a matter of picking an address and going with it. However, all of this should have been irrelevant to the DOE. Even if David had put down these addresses to intentionally deceive, he still should not have been charged for them. He could not be charged for them because the tenure law for NYC teachers states that the DOE cannot bring charges for anything more than three years old. The last time David provided an address at which his daughter did not live was 2006. These charges were drawn up in 2012.

At this point, David’s daughter was already enrolled in high school. Where David Suker or his daughter were living at that point were irrelevant since NYC high schools are open to students in all five boroughs. If this is the case, why in the world did DOE investigators stalk his daughter in the Bronx? Her place of residence did not matter at the time of the investigation. Perhaps these investigators should be brought up on charges of their own and required to be part of some sort of registry so their neighbors can know what types of creeps are living amongst them.

Justice Schlesinger summed up her decision with what she perceived were the real reasons for David Suker’s termination:

“As this Court stated earlier, the school’s leadership did not want petitioner Suker to remain there as a teacher. They did not like him or approve of his actions. They believed he was insubordinate, that he did not conduct himself properly, that he was getting arrested too often, and probably that he was not a team player. It is possible that much of that is true. But with the exception of the two episodes involving disruptive students, which had occurred almost three years earlier in 2009 and had not resulted in discipline, no one has claimed that David Suker is not a good and/or effective teacher.

Finally, it should be noted that the conduct spelled out in Charge 3, regarding a false address for his daughter, never involved Suker’s own school and never would have been discovered but for the DOE’S decision to target Suker to see if an investigation could find something to be used against him, which it did. But that “something” should not be a basis for terminating this tenured teacher, for the reasons already discussed.”

These words, and the entire David Suker story, encapsulates perfectly the reasons why all teachers everywhere need solid work protections. David stuck up for his students his entire career, even if it meant drawing the ire of his supervisors. He is the type of person determined to do the just thing, even if that thing is unpopular or dangerous to his livelihood. When his students were being beaten by corrections officers, he spoke out about it and was duly punished. Instead of being cowed by this experience with bureaucratic backlash, he continued to be an advocate. He was an advocate for kids who had no other advocate. When the reformer Cami Anderson came to town to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic that was District 79, she caused untold damage to the lives of the kids and their teachers. David Suker was not silent about these acts of education reformer criminality. For this, he paid with his career.

Education reformers are fond of saying how much they love poor children and how they want to help them. By the time David Suker was terminated, the DOE was thoroughly in the grasp of the reformers. Even though Anderson was off destroying the schools of Newark by 2012, Bloomberg acolytes still occupied every position of consequence within the system. They accomplished a feat by sucking resources away from the most underserved kids in the city. David Suker was systematically harassed when he protested against this. So while David is a textbook argument in favor of teacher tenure, he is also a textbook example of why reformers nationwide have made teacher tenure their biggest target. The reformers know what they are doing to our schools is an exercise in unmitigated brutality. Because of that, they need to shut teachers up so they can go about destroying the communities of poor people unabated.

We need to thank teachers like David Suker who refuse to lay down so the jackboots of school reform can trample over them. We need to thank them for using their own resources to lawyer up in order get their terminations overturned in an actual court of law, where a measure of justice can be served. We need to support them in their ongoing struggle against the witch hunts conducted by the Department of Education.

In the thick of last year’s holiday season, the DOE moved to discontinue the unemployment they were giving David Suker. They also sued him for the unemployment they had already given him. His son was born at that point. If not for the paychecks brought home by his hard-working wife, there is no telling what type of childhood their son would be having now. This is reminiscent of the Christine Rubino case, where she had to sell the house in which she was raising her two young children thanks to a wrongful termination by the DOE. They also tried discontinuing her unemployment. This is another reason why the DOE motto of “children first, always” is a cruel example of reformer doublespeak.

The battle is not over. The DOE is appealing Schlesinger’s decision. Let us hope it turns out like the DOE’s appeal of the Christine Rubino decision, where 5 justices saw through the charade of a sham DOE investigation and termination. Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

 

Occupy’s Two-Year Anniversary: It’s All in the Data

occupy

Occupy Wall Street was the first major event that I wrote about on this blog. Until this day I feel fortunate for working in such close proximity to Zuccotti Park. It afforded me an opportunity to be part of an event that I believe will eventually define the coming historical era. While the original occupations fizzled out due to general disorganization and authoritarian repression, that does not mean the movement itself will not resurface at some point in some form in the future, bigger than before. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to agree with this prediction if they were in downtown Manhattan a few days ago on the second anniversary of Occupy.

Walking past Zuccotti Park at seven-thirty in the AM on that day was a depressing sight. The entire perimeter was blocked off with metal police barricades, not to mention police. They were allowing the first trickle of protesters in as I was on my way to work. Seeing 5 or 6 young protesters in the middle of the square setting up shop while dozens of officers ringed the park was a far cry from what the place looked like two years ago. Back then a sea of humanity overflowed the benches, the floors and the sidewalks while the police tenuously occupied a sliver of the curb on Broadway, helplessly looking on as people exercised all types of freedoms right in front of them. Now it was the police who overflowed the park, firmly entrenched on all four sides while protesters sheepishly trickled in between the blue uniforms.

Later in the day, as I stepped out to grab lunch, I bore witness to a tame march of protesters circling the block of Zuccotti Park. They were relatively quiet, controlled in their movements and all held up signs with exactly the same size fonts and lettering. Each sign hearkened back to many of the messages of the original protest: “Stop Stop and Frisk”, “Get Money Out of Politics”, etc. But the spontaneity, the disorganization and the general exuberance were gone. The police looked on seemingly pleased at the good behavior of the young people who quietly passed through the narrow corridor of sidewalk they had left available. As the old police cliché goes, there was truly nothing to see here.

In fact, the real spectacle was on my side of Trinity Place across the street from the park. As I loitered by the phone booths smoking a post-lunch menthol, a different sea of humanity was passing by me as well. This humanity was much nosier and much less organized than the protesters across the street. Instead of holding signs with political messages, this sea of humanity was holding cameras and maps of Manhattan. That is right: it was a sea of tourists stopping to gawk at, and snap pictures of, the puny exercise in democracy taking place across the street. Ironically, this sea of unruly tourists did not have any NYPD officers circumscribing where they could walk.

It was at that point that I realized I was watching history unfold. On the Zuccotti side of the street, you had the protesters who stood against everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. On my side of the street, you had the tourists who reveled in everything Pharaoh Bloomberg’s New York City had become. My side represented the era of repression and commercialism that is on its way out. The Zuccotti side represented the era of free association and community that is yet to be born.

To the tourists who pass through downtown Manhattan, everything is a spectacle. While Trinity Church, Federal Hall and even the giant-testicled bull at the foot of Broadway are nice photo opportunities, the tourists take things much further. Most of these out-of-towners are either coming from, or trying to get to, the 9/11 Memorial. They skip lightly with their children in tow, oftentimes herded down the street by tour guides with light blue 9/11 Memorial shirts on. “Let’s keep moving. We’re almost there” these tour guides can be heard saying to their pliant charges. They usually form a bottleneck along Cedar Street outside of the Ho Yip Chinese buffet as they shuffle along. Some of them even return the death glares that one lone history teacher throws them as they pass by, although they cannot return the menthol smoke he directs into their faces.

It is always a party atmosphere along Cedar Street. The only problem is that they are going to see two giant holes in the ground where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives 12 years ago. They will snap some pictures and then come back outside where they can stop at the 9/11 Memorial gift store to pick up World Trade Center memorabilia. The entire spectacle, from the obnoxious digital cameras to the pushy tour guides to the oblivious foreigners to the cackling children, is a giant Bloombergian farce.

One cannot totally blame the tourists for what downtown Manhattan has become. Thanks to Pharaoh Bloomberg, Larry Silverstein and the bloodsucking state politicians in Albany, what should be hallowed ground and a national reminder of our shared history is instead a hokey exercise in commercialism. Compare the 9/11 Memorial to the monuments in Washington, D.C. like the Lincoln or FDR or World War II memorials. Sure, those places can have floods of tourists too. However, at the end of the day, they are public spaces. They are shared spaces. They are civic spaces. There are no gift shops around them. There is not a constant parade of tour groups being led single-file by obnoxious guides who admonish them to keep up, monopolizing the small strips of public space that exist. Visitors to these places are not asked or guilted into making “donations” to the monument. One cannot buy a mug with an image of the D-Day invasion down the block from the World War II Memorial.

Even if there were all of those things around our national monuments in D.C., it would still be more tolerable than what has become of what used to be the World Trade Center area. Lincoln was killed 148 years ago. FDR died and World War II ended 68 years ago. There is a good chance that people involved in those events are not living and working in the D.C. area anymore. On the other hand, downtown Manhattan still has many residents and workers who were there in 2001. Some of them might have even narrowly escaped with their lives. Some of them might still suffer illnesses from breathing in the acrid smoke. Some of them, including police and firefighters, might have even saved people’s lives or lost friends that day. And yet, the survivors of this national tragedy have to look on each day as downtown Manhattan turns into a circus. While Bloomberg is not totally at fault for this, it is certainly in step with the Bloomberg plan for the city.

This is what I saw on the 2nd anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. To the tourists, the Occupy protesters were a curiosity and a spectacle much like the 9/11 Memorial. They did not expect to see democracy in action when they showed up that day with their maps and their cameras. Metaphorically speaking, the three-ring circus was featuring the dancing bear but the out-of-towners got the bearded lady as a bonus as well. They oohed and aahed throughout both acts, snapping pictures the entire time.

Bloomberg can say that downtown Manhattan has bounced back. The independent eateries and souvenir shops that were around before 9/11 are certainly crammed with tourists now, many of whom have American dollars burning holes in their pockets after converting from Euros. The Freedom Tower is more or less complete, all 1776 feet of it. Yet, just like Bloomberg’s “successes” with public schools and fighting crime, it is a success on the surface only. One only has to dig an inch deep to find the rot that Bloomberg’s gild conceals.

At the end of the day, whether it is tourist dollars, test scores or crime stats, the only thing that has been accomplished under the reign of Pharaoh Bloomberg in NYC is an artful manipulation of numbers. Those numbers bear very little resemblance to reality. Tourist bucks are flowing in, yet downtown Manhattan still bears a national scar that has not been properly treated. Test scores are up (or at least they used to be), yet our students still have trouble making their way in the world after they graduate. Crime is down (or at least it used to be), yet many average New Yorkers are being robbed by a ridiculous cost of living. For the poorest New Yorkers, the NYPD has terrorized them in their own communities thanks to stop-and-frisk.

That is why when I was standing there between the Occupy protesters and the tourists, I was able to feel the tide of history wash over me. One side represented the dying Bloomberg era of optimistic data that continues to fool so many people. The other side represented the coming era of a mass awakening of what that data was always concealing.

THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON

Most people are just doing their jobs.

Most people are just doing their jobs.

If you have ever taught in New York City then you know who the School Safety Agents are. They are the men and women dressed in police-like outfits who patrol the hallways, oversee dismissal and are generally there to protect the safety of students and staff. I used to work alongside many SSAs during my days as a dean and I still have an appreciation for what they do on a daily basis.

The SSAs are part of the New York City Police Department. Because of this, they have wider latitude than teachers or deans to physically restrain students who are acting violent or threatening. However, they have much less latitude than police officers and must take extra care to respect the civil rights of students. They are in a tough position. On one hand, they need to maintain the aura of authority figures. On the other hand, they must earn the respect of the students in order to do so. This latter imperative usually causes some teachers to criticize SSAs for being too chummy with the students. It is a rare occasion when an SSA has a reputation for being too strict, although it does happen from time to time.

There was one particular SSA at a school in which I worked who was kind of strict on yours truly. I would even go so far as to say that his behavior towards me was downright rude and unprofessional. As far as his reputation with the students or other teachers was concerned, I haven’t the foggiest idea. All I know is that this man tested the limits of my patience.

One of my many nasty habits is cigarette smoking. All schools have a de facto smoker’s corner somewhere outside where teachers congregate to indulge their two favorite habits: nicotine and complaining. While it is unhealthy to blow cigarette smoke, it is pretty healthy to blow off some steam. I justify it by thinking the two balance each other out. The teachers at the school were vigilant about going to an inconspicuous place where they wouldn’t be seen by students. During those times when there were no students around, I went around the corner to catch up on my text messages and emails while inhaling yet another cancer stick; menthol 100s of course. This had been a thing of mine for as long as I could remember and I couldn’t imagine who I might have been harming aside from myself.

Yet, somehow, a new SSA at the school informed me that this was not the place to smoke. He approached me while I was indulging in the filthy habit and said he was at a “training” recently which taught him there should be no smoking anywhere near the school. Whether this applied to just staff or any random person I did not know. Rather than make a thing out of it, I dutifully took my business elsewhere without giving it another thought. In fact, I followed his directive for several days thereafter even when he was not around to enforce it.

That all changed one day while going out to grab a late lunch. My path took me right by my old smoking spot, the one the SSA said was not a smoking spot. I saw him standing there chatting it up with the head custodian, who just happened to be smoking at the time. Whatever the topic of their conversation was, it certainly was not about how the spot in which they were both standing was off-limits to smoking. I could tell this by the hearty laughter that punctuated their conversation. They were doing everything short of slapping each other’s backs. I thought to myself, ok, maybe the smoking ban was lifted just for the moment they were standing there. Or maybe the smoking ban was in effect for the time of day I happened to be caught. Or maybe the smoking ban was in effect just for me. Whatever it was, the parameters of this smoking ban were bizarre indeed and riddled with loopholes. The next day, I decided to reclaim my spot.

About a week or two after the smoking ban, I once again happened upon my favorite SSA. This time, I was heading out to grab a fast lunch that I could bring back to the building to eat while catching up on piles of grading. Teachers have this weird tendency to plan out every minute of their prep time. I used to have to schedule bathroom trips lest I forget and be stuck in a classroom for the next three periods. The relative productivity of my day usually depends upon getting the annoying stuff out of the way (eating, bathroom, correspondence [w/smoking], etc.) so I could focus on planning and/or grading.

To that end, I decided to avoid the crowds of students, who were meandering out to lunch through the front exit, by slipping out through the side doors which were usually free of traffic. Despite the relative ease of getting to this exit, I rarely used it because the doors opened out into a very narrow street. Any bystander walking along outside could get a face full of steel unless I slowly inched the door open to let them know I was coming.

As I was walking down the stairs, I saw our SSA standing on the landing between the second floor and the exit which was my destination. I said hello as I passed him (to which I received his usual non-response), reached the bottom of the stairwell and, just as I pushed on the iron bar to make my exit, he says “nobody is supposed to go out through that exit.” I thought to myself, gee, it would have been nice if you told me that before I reached the bottom of the staircase. Maybe you could have worked that into the conversation after my “hello” to you. I said to him “I thought you were standing there to make sure the kids didn’t cut out of school through this exit”, to which he shook his head “no”.

Now, after the earlier smoking controversy, I saw this man’s directives as mere suggestions. I certainly was not about to run back up the stairs so I could exit through the crowded lobby and fail in my mission to get back in time to get some serious grading done. Furthermore, I never knew it to be school policy for the exit in question to be off-limits to staff. So, I inched the door open and made my escape.

I started thinking about that last “no” he said to me. If he was not standing there to ensure that students did not cut out of school, does that mean he was stationed there to stop staff from exiting? Was he standing there to make sure people from the outside did not sneak their way in? The latter was sort of an impossibility, since the door could not be opened from the outside due to the fact that it automatically locked, had no handles and weighed around half a ton. As a former dean, I am sensitive to the need for a school to have secure exits locked to the outside world. That is why I was always sure to fully close the door behind me on the few occasions I used that exit. I would lean my entire body weight on it, listen for the thud that told me it was locked and did some quality control by trying to open it up again, to no avail.

Whatever his reason for being stationed on that landing, he obviously took it quite seriously. At the next staff meeting, the administration told us that we should avoid using that exit. Our SSA had obviously saw my exiting as a transgression serious enough to inform my superiors. Whether or not he mentioned me by name to them is still unclear. Perhaps his total lack of interest in me as a human being was my saving grace in this instance, since he most likely didn’t know my name.

Sure, both of these run-ins with this SSA were pretty petty. Despite the fact that he committed one of the cardinal sins of the schoolhouse by snitching on me, I still had the ability to swallow my pride and try to smooth things over with him. However, a few weeks later, we took one step further away from doing that.

I have a very strict bathroom policy in my class. Each student receives a certain number of bathroom passes each semester. They know not to burn them unless they have an actual emergency. Of course, allowances are made for students with medical conditions. All told, between the months of September and June for all 150 of my students, there are no more than 20 instances of students leaving my classroom for any reason. In short, it is a rare occasion that you will catch any of my students in the hallway.

Yet, it is simply unavoidable in some cases. One day, one of my bright freshmen was not her chipper, participatory self. She had a sullen, ashen look on her face. Around 15 minutes into the period she asked to go to the bathroom. I could tell this was an emergency, so I told her to just go without worrying about looking for and filling out the bathroom pass. This was the only time this student ever left my room.

No more than 5 minutes later, our favorite SSA returned her to class and said to me that she was “walking the halls” with her friend. I had never known this girl to be a hallwalker. If she was in fact walking the halls with her friend, then I was inclined to believe it was pure coincidence. Perhaps she just bumped into someone she knew on her way back from the bathroom. In order to verify this, I asked the student if she had made it to the bathroom. She said she did. At this point, the SSA told me that I needed to give her a pass if she was to leave the room. This is the type of dressing down that adults are just not supposed to do to other adults in front of students. It does not matter if it is an SSA, teacher or administrator, it is unprofessional to admonish a colleague in front of students. Besides, hadn’t I earned the benefit of a doubt after years of not ever producing any hallwalkers from my room? Surely if someone from my class was “walking the halls”, there is a reasonable explanation. The most likely explanation is that the hallways are the only path from classroom to bathroom. There is no other way to reach the bathroom except through the halls. Case closed.

I really never found out what this SSAs shtick was. He was transferred to another school shortly thereafter. Whenever I think of him, I think of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In short, you give someone a role, especially a role with a little power, and they will likely use it in all types of creative, malicious ways.

The other thing I think about is the movie Idiocracy. In a future where the world is as dumbed down as humanly possible, the police know nothing more than how to bark out simplistic orders and blast people with pepper spray. It can be argued that Idiocracy is already here. During my time at Occupy, I saw first hand many officers who had no affect and seemed to know nothing more than how to bark out the same order over and over again.

However, these seemingly trivial run-ins with a seemingly trivial person had me reflect on some serious lessons. Every year I take a class period to tell my students that my goal as their teacher is to develop their sense of humanity through the study of history. The school system would like me to play the role of a transmitter. It not only places me in a position to transmit the knowledge it wants me to pass down, it places me in a position to transmit a certain set of values.

It wants me to tell children that the harder they work, the more rewards they receive. It wants me to transmit the value that success means making money. It wants me to transmit the value that the goal of education is so they can go on to be the type of workers our corporations want to hire. Through these values, students will learn that hard work will eventually get them much success, which means money. The further implication of this is that those who have money now must have worked hard for it. The wealthy earned their keep and are entitled to every last dime they have.

In short, the school system is designed so that I as the teacher pass on the idea that the system that exists in the world today is not only good, but natural. No other system can be imagined. No other system is desirable. Work, work, work, work with the nebulous carrot of “success” dangling in front of you. Most of us are destined to be the hamster in the wheel: working furiously but never getting any closer to the carrot called “success”. It is really ingenuous, this school system of ours. In the end, it functions as little more than a 13-year exercise in brainwashing. It makes us all complicit in our own subjugation.

The more robotic, thoughtless people exist in the world today, all the better for the system. As the great Jewish philosopher Hanna Arendt described, the Nazi state was built on thoughtless, robotic individuals. Most Germans were complicit in a murderous system, yet nobody felt any responsibility since everyone was just doing their “job”.

If I want students to get one thing out of my class, it is that a combination of critical thinking and empathy helps ward off the banality of evil of which we all seem to be capable.

Sure, the banality of evil can be a Nazi official from the 1930s. Much more often, it comes in the form of that SSA watching out for smokers and hallwalkers. He is a relatively harmless example of the banality of evil. As a matter of fact, most people are relatively harmless examples of it. Their biggest crime is the fact that they are incapable of going off the script. In the aggregate, however, so many people committing small acts of thoughtless evil amounts to one gigantic, evil system.

The best type of revolution against this sytem is not violence. The best type of revolution is the slow but steady awakening of peoples’ humanity. It is the one-at-a-time awakening that shows people that life doesn’t have to follow a script. It is the type of revolution designed to reprogram the very DNA of the system by reaching its most atomic, and most necessary, constituents: our children.

This is my most important lesson for both my students and myself. I do not want to be a teacher, not in the sense that the system defines that term. Instead, I want to be an anti-teacher.

On Occupy’s One Year Anniversary, The CTU Carries The Torch

I miss Occupy Wall Street. Even though it only lasted a few months, I have stories from there that I will remember forever.

My favorite thing to do was to head to Liberty Square after work, make a quick cardboard sign and stand on Broadway holding it. Making signs was a skill. The lettering had to be large enough for people to read but small enough to fit the point you were trying to make. I would always choose a smallish piece of cardboard in order to not block out anyone else’s sign. I got good enough where I could make a good point in a short sentence, sometimes even using statistics. I would never use slogans or clichés. The point being made had to be authentic and original.

I would head to Broadway with my sign and find a nice spot in the line of sign-holders. There was a healthy amount of foot and car traffic on Broadway that increased as the Occupy movement gained steam. It was a great feeling when a passer-by would lock eyeballs on my sign, read it and shake their heads in agreement. Sometimes they would come talk to me, either to ask a question or give me a compliment. All types of reporters threw me questions and there are still Youtube videos up made by independent journalists that contain interviews with me. Occasionally, students of mine would pass by and it became known around my school that I was going to the Occupy protests. The students were all very supportive, making it one of the best teachable moments of my career.

Of course, not everybody came to Occupy in support. There would be the occasional Wall Street guy or random angry person that would pass by and call us “communists” or “losers”. There were people who fancied themselves little Glenn Becks or Sean Hannitys who would walk down the line of sign holders trying to start debates. I would crave their attention. It did not take much. I would just stand there, staring straight in front of me and, boom, I was face to face with a street pundit who was going to put me in my place.

One of these guys was a self-professed libertarian, as most of these smart-alecks were. His debating style was not so much a give-and-take discussion as it was a yelling of libertarian clichés ad nauseam. He thought he had disposed of all the people in the line pretty easily, so he was real confident by the time he got to me. Unfortunately for him, I was all-too-familiar with libertarian talking points and knew exactly what he was going to say before he said it. He did not dispose of me quite as easily as he expected. Instead, he stayed there next to me yelling his point, the same sentences, over and over. A crowd started to gather, mostly passers-by who thought there was a fist fight brewing. I was completely calm knowing I would never get into a fist fight over a silly political debate. The circle grew with every moment. They were in rapt attention of the discussion going on. His point, as is the point of most libertarians, is that the government does not do anything right. For good measure, he called me a “union bum” because I was a teacher. For every one of his clichés, I calmly retorted a counterpoint. I asked him why he was so quick to yield power to his corporate masters, why he believed everything should be commodified and asked him if there would ever be a Hoover Dam, a subway system, public education or a highway system if the forces of profit were given the reigns of society. My point to him was that there were things that are necessary for the greater good, and just happen not to be profitable, so the government has a duty to step in and provide them. I ended by saying, “this sidewalk you’re standing on, you’re using it to voice your free speech and it was built and maintained by government. Why are you using this government sidewalk if you hate government so much?”

He walked away. He did not even go to the next protestor, he just left the vicinity. Many in the crowd of onlookers shook my hand and others offered their opinion on why the other guy was an idiot. One guy came up to me, well dressed with a foreign accent, and he said “you know, I agree with you. I have been out of a job for over a year and that guy just thinks it is so easy to find work.” He was really unsure of himself. I realized then that, although many in the crowd were relatively informed, there were others like him who were on the fence. For some of them, this might have been one of the only real political debates they have seen. I felt as if I had swayed a few minds to my way of thinking in that moment.

Those were my greatest moments at Occupy. Sure, connecting with people who shared my concerns on the dark path our nation treads is great. But being able to get those people who have never really thought about the way our country is headed  over to my side was so much better. What happened in those little moments at Occupy mirrored what was happening around the country. The movement was making people face the stark reality that our system needs change. People are suffering because the system is rigged to favor the well-to-do. A new vigor and honesty was injected into the public debate, one the media could not even ignore despite their best efforts to do so. This was Occupy’s greatest accomplishment.

Ever since the evictions, Occupy has never been able to regain the influence it had in those heady days of autumn 2011. Occupy’s one-year anniversary is coming up and events at Liberty Square are being planned. As we look upon the nation today, there is one glimmer of hope that Occupy’s spirit is still alive.

You have guessed it, it is in Chicago. The marches filling the streets of the Windy City are reminiscent of when Broadway was stacked for a mile with protestors. In both cases, the media totally underreport the numbers to portray it as some sort of fringe movement. The fight for better education in Chicago reminds me of the high and honest ideals people supported at Occupy. The exasperation over corporatism, privatization, commodification and political corruption define both movements. More importantly, they have forced the corporate media to discuss issues they would rather ignore. They have forced the media to do the job they are supposed to do, which is to inform and educate.

For example. the mainstream media usually portrays teacher evaluations based on test scores as a sensible measure. They merely parrot the billionaire privatizers. When they mention the concerns of teachers over these measures at all, they portray it as teachers resisting “accountability” and reinforce the notion that teachers oppose “improvements” to the education system. However, as the strike drags on, more and more op-ed pieces and media reports are forced to present more thoughtful analysis of the testing issue. Pieces are being written now that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. As time goes on, hopefully the issues of class size, teacher experience and childhood poverty will also be examined in greater detail.

And just like at Occupy, the media has done their best to not discuss these issues. With the Occupiers, it was all about how they did not know what they wanted, had no demands and were looking for handouts. As time went on, that myth was being exploded and the media had no choice but to mention the words “poverty” and “corporatism”. With the CTU, it is about how the teachers are striking for “more money” and “better benefits”. Yet, according to even Rahmbo himself, those issues are pretty much settled. The media has had no choice but to start to mention the impacts of testing and class size. I read a few editorials today that even mention how Rahm’s own children attend classes of 18 students, leading to the notion of how the privatization movement is creating a two-tiered education system: one for the wealthy and one for everyone else.

The CTU us shining a light on issues that the media has traditionally ignored. Just like with Occupy, these are issues that make the corporate masters who control the media uncomfortable. Just like with Occupy, the movement has gathered so much momentum that the media now has no choice but to grudgingly mention these issues. That in and of itself is a victory.

What I think of is all the people who have never thought of education before, or who have allowed the media to frame the education debate for them, having that moment of clarity where the truth finally clicks.. I saw it so many times at Liberty Square and I am excited to think that it is starting to happen now in the crusade to save public education.

Won’t Back Down From The Hunchbacks

The parent trigger law originated in Los Angeles. The heaviest hitters in the quest to dismantle public education funded it from its inception: Broad, Gates and Walton. The law allows parents of children in public schools to turn the institution over to private (charter) management with a 51% vote. There is no provision in any parent trigger law allowing parents of charter students to vote to turn the institution over to public operation.

After its success in southern California, the American Legislative Exchange Council picked up on it and sought to bring parent trigger laws to other states. They have been successful in getting some incarnation of the law passed in seven of them.

With the sponsorship of the likes of Broad, Gates, Walton, ALEC  and DFER, it is obvious that parent trigger laws are merely a new vehicle by which megabillionaires can ransack the public school systems of the United States for private profit.  One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to see it this way.

This ransacking of public institutions is the cornerstone of Neoliberalism, a political and economic ideology that has defined the United States for the past 35 years. Its godfather is the late economist Milton Friedman. Its international adherents include third world despots like Augusto Pinochet. Its ideological foundations are underpinned by such third-rate minds as Ayn Rand and her concubine, Alan Greenspan.

It is a naked worship of the rich and powerful. It is the belief that the rich and powerful should control every aspect of our lives.

Unfortunately, the United States has a pesky written Constitution and a Bill of Rights that still guarantee some semblance of popular sovereignty. Unlike Pinochet, the Neoliberals in America cannot merely ram their policies down our throats with tanks.

This is why the parent trigger law is such a grand idea for the Neoliberals. It comports nicely with the trappings of popular democracy by having parents vote. It gives parents a once-in-a-lifetime vote that they can never reverse and turns their children’s schools into institutions over which they will have no say ever again.

It is a maniacal, Machiavellian device. Anyone with a basic familiarity with education policy and recent American history can see it for exactly that.

The good thing is, we live in the United States, where neither history nor education policy exist in the minds of most people.

Enter the upcoming movie Won’t Back Down. The two men behind the movie, Rupert Murdoch of 20th Century Fox and Philip Anschutz of Walden Media, are two of the most retrograde forces in the United States today. Murdoch, of course, has given us such culturally elevating fare as Fox News and the New York Post, not to mention criminal wiretapping. Philip Anschutz is an oil man who funds every anti-gay group in the country, wants evolution to be taught in schools and funds Scott Walker of Wisconsin. He was the man behind the film Waiting for Superman.

Waiting for Superman was billed as the brainchild of Davis Guggenheim. Guggenheim had earned his liberal stripes by producing the movie An Inconvenient Truth. As we know, it featured one of the liberal heroes of our age, Al Gore, lecturing about one of the biggest liberal causes of our age, global warming. When Guggenheim released Waiting for Superman, it was merely assumed by most that its pro-charter, anti-union message was the liberal take on education.

Maybe it was the liberal take on education. But what it really was at its core was the Neoliberal take. Guggenheim might not be a Neoliberal, but Philip Anschutz certainly is. Guggenheim merely delivered a partially staged, over emotional, under intellectual “documentary” case for the Neoliberal idea that anything public is bad and anything run by billionaires is good. It is a funny thing, since it is those billionaire oilmen like Anschutz most responsible for the degradation of our biosphere against which An Inconvenient Truth so passionately inveighed.

Anschutz knows that showing his face publicly to advocate for Neoliberal policies would doom his cause. The public would see him for the utterly deformed character he is. His very presence is a public relations nightmare for Neoliberalism.

This is why Won’t Back Down is his latest way of pushing the Neoliberal agenda. In the place of his emotionally hunchback presence is a cast of beautiful young actors. They have played out a Hollywood script on the big screen that will no doubt evoke visceral support for parent trigger laws. The parents in the movie surely will want the best education for their children. The teacher unions will surely be more interested in protecting their incompetents than teaching. The unions are so entrenched and insidious that nothing but the indomitable will of a few plucky parents can get them to bow. Surely there will be some billionaire hero in the movie somewhere, some enlightened scion of the upper classes willing to provide the type of great school that the children of these plucky parents deserve. In the end, the parents get their great school and the closing credits will probably run to the inspiring tune of Tom Petty’s rendition of Won’t Back Down.

Applause throughout the theater. Applause and tears. Once again, those teachers and their unions are holding us back. They are just so evil and powerful. The billionaires are our saviors. Right under everyone’s radar goes the obvious immense power and influence of billionaires in our country. Never once will that click to anyone. The billionaires will save the day.

The Neoliberal message of billionaire worship will shine through. Ayn Randian lickspittles are going to made out of, what, a million, two million, five million movie-goers. Instead of rolling the people with armored tanks like they did under Pinochet, the Neolibs in the U.S. are rolling us with armored propaganda. It is the American way.

And tonight in Los Angeles is the start of this process with the so-called Teachers Rock event. It is billed as an event in support of teachers. It is being held in perhaps the biggest hotbed of liberal tolerance outside of Frisco: Hollywood. It will feature some of the most powerful liberal do-gooders in the nation: Hollywood actors. It is going to benefit some really do-goody sounding charities like Donorschoose and Teach For America. The beautiful people will be out in force tonight in support of, what, teachers? It is the promotional event of Won’t Back Down, the “movie”.

And behind the beautiful velveteen curtain, behind the million-dollar Hollywood smiles is the deformed, retrograde, hunchback figure of Philip Anschutz. Anschutz the gay hater, ape denier and environment killer. He is using Meryl Streep and Morgan Freeman like he used the cast in Won’t Back Down, like he used Davis Guggenheim. He is using the liberals to cloak the Neoliberalism that is his not-so-secret dream.

And of course it is Rupert Murdoch too. Murdoch the wire-tapper, monopolist and propagandist. And it is the Waltons, the union-busters, small business killers and labor exploiters.

America thinks they are getting the beautiful people of Hollywood. Rather, they are getting that other stratosphere well out of reach of Hollywood, the hunchback, shadowy, Neoliberals of the megabillionaire class. America tonight is not getting the 1%. They are getting the .1%, and they will applaud their own undoing until the very end.

Monday Morning Picture Round-Up

Liberals, Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David: comedic genius, limousine liberal.

The gay marriage controversy is easily resolved. If I were President of the United States, I would issue an executive order legalizing gay marriage in every U.S. state and territory. My decision would be accompanied by a brief speech explaining that, in the United States of America, the government should make every effort to ensure the rights of consenting adults to build a life together in any way they see fit. It is a fundamental American value that government should guarantee “the pursuit of happiness” as an “unalienable” right.

The Emancipation Proclamation, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and prohibition of stem cell research all flowed from executive orders. Presidents have used the executive order to make sweeping changes to American society before. There is no reason why gay marriage could not or should not be resolved in the same way.

Most importantly, I would legalize gay marriage so fast in order to focus on what I consider more pressing matters.

Yet, over the past several years, activists have been filing lawsuits, judges have been handing down rulings and lawmakers have been working on legislation to legalize gay marriage. President Obama, facing reelection this November, recently came out in support of it. The media has been abuzz with this politician and that politician coming out for or against. In short, a healthy amount of the nation’s resources and attention has been husbanded to the gay marriage controversy. More than one respected source has alluded to gay marriage as either the civil rights struggle of our era, or the gravest threat to American values.

And yet, one wave of the presidential hand can make all of this go away.

A friend of mine said she read a statistic somewhere that most of the legislation that has been introduced and debated by this current Tea Party Congress revolves around abortion or women’s reproductive rights.

This is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Gay marriage, abortion, marijuana and other such issues have been on the lips of our elected officials for a reason: they distract our attention from the grave structural problems that plague our civilization.

Childhood poverty has reached levels not seen since the late 1800s. The American worker, despite skyrocketing productivity over the past 35 years, has not seen their wages keep up apace. The average CEO makes around 300 times their average worker. Many multi-billion dollar corporations pay no taxes. There is no more class system in the United States, only an economic caste system. The financial sector is still largely unregulated; the student debt bomb being the next terrorist device set to explode because of it.

Our elected officials will give impassioned speeches about gay marriage, but when it comes to children living in households where their parents make less than 3 dollars an hour, they are totally silent. Indeed, the longer they can string these culture war issues along, the more they can make speeches about them and ensure that our structural class problems remain invisible.

As much as I would love to blame conservatives for trying to foist their religious fundamentalism onto the rest of us, the lion’s share of the blame must go to those who pass as “liberals” in this day and age. This includes not only so-called liberals in government, but self-styled liberals of the rank-and-file.

In order to test this, find yourself someone who you might consider a liberal and suggest to them that our country has more pressing matters to attend to than gay marriage. You will be met with moral outrage, if not a full-blown accusation of homophobia.

It is symptomatic of what has become of the entire liberal edifice over the past 35 years.

For example, somewhere along the way, the most prominent black leaders started worrying about “the n word” and which corporations were promoting blacks to middle management positions. All the while, almost a third of America’s black population live below the poverty line and the life expectancy of black Americans remain far below the national average. In essence, the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world became preoccupied with issues relevant to the black middle class or, in other words, those with the disposable income to give to their organizations.

One can only hope that Tavis Smiley and Cornell West have breathed new life into the black civil rights movement.

In the same manner, gay marriage has been the issue du jour of the white liberal class. Whether gay, straight or transgender, liberals around the country have mobilized for the fight for gay rights. For me, it is self-evident that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, should have the right to get married. I consider myself a well-wisher of the gay marriage movement.

I can only say that if gay marriage is your number one political concern, you must have a pretty good life.

The people who pass as liberals in this day and age have played right into conservative hands. Liberal leaders have taken their most impassioned stances and scored their biggest victories in recent years on culture war issues. They have scored these victories because, in the end, conservatives have largely allowed them to do so. Allowing gays to marry will not make any deep structural changes to our broken socioeconomic system. That means that, while it is a loss for conservatives, it is a loss they can live with.

We live in an era of decadence, which literally means a “falling apart”. Both the liberal and conservative elite have reached a consensus that radical reform of our system is unacceptable, so they have resigned themselves to tinkering along the edges. While gays will be allowed to marry and marijuana will someday be legal, the economic caste system that rots our democracy will go unchanged.

While the people of France recently elected a new president in the hopes of altering the direction of the European Union, our president is campaigning on gay marriage. While the people of Greece turned many of their austerity hawks out of government, our leaders are garnering votes over the question of whether man came from God or ape. We are, without question, the single dumbest and most vegged out nation in western civilization.

This goes a long way towards explaining what has become of the Democratic Party in recent years. They are a conglomerate of special interests: gays, minorities, environmentalists, etc. Each interest single-mindedly pushes their agenda to the forefront and, at varying times, is successful at getting their pet issue at the center of the public debate. By bringing their issues into relief, the fundamental traditions on which the Democrats used to stand (the New Deal and the Great Society) fizzle away.

Whether one votes Democrat or Republican, the outcome is the same: the economic caste system stands unperturbed. Liberals should not cheer their superficial victories. They should instead mourn the fact that the culture wars are the only wars they have the heart to wage.