On Oprah yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said,
What's really going on in a place like Newark is we have violence and drug use because we have no hope. And the reason we don't have hope is because children don't believe tomorrow can be better than today, because it's an obscenity that we've robbed from them their education.
Here is the reality, Mr. Governor.
In the city of Newark, according to Wikipedia, 28.4% of the population and 25.5% of families are below the poverty line. 36.6% of those under the age of 18 and 24.1% of those 65 and older are living below the poverty line. The city’s unemployment rate is 12%.
A few decades ago politicians decided that DRUGS were the cause of all of our woes in the cities. Drugs were the cause of crime, and destroyed our neighborhoods. So our political leaders declared a war on drugs. They gave speeches demanding “get tough” laws that would keep the criminals off the streets, and remove this dire threat to our communities. Now our prisons are overflowing, and more than two million Americans are behind bars, and three times that many are on probation.
Drugs and crime were symptoms of hopelessness, however, not the cause. Locking up millions of Americans has not delivered our neighborhoods from crime - and the costs for prisons has diverted billions away from our schools.
Now our politicians and their billionaire sponsors are leading us on another phony moral crusade. But instead of a war on drugs, we have a war on teachers.
The poverty rate in Oakland, California, where I have worked for the past 24 years, is similar to that of Newark, so I am familiar with these conditions. Unemployment and poverty drive people to drugs and crime, and, as has been documented in voluminous studies, have a significant effect on school achievement.
Our schools are being labeled the root cause of all this dysfunction, but this is absolutely wrong. This is not to say that our schools cannot be improved. But to make these schools into the scourge of these poor communities is the height of demagogic abuse.
The truth is that poverty and unemployment yield hopelessness in our communities - and in our schools as well. People who have lived in multi-generational poverty often see no way out, and children are very sensitive to this. Teachers in our schools do their best to inspire our children to lift their aspirations upwards, but we do not succeed with all of them.
A teacher I work with described a student she is having trouble with this week. I asked about his family situation. The father says the mother is a drug addict. The child lives part time with an older brother. You can only imagine the turmoil in this sixth grader’s life - and he brings that turmoil to class with him every day, and recreates it everywhere he goes. And let me tell you, this is exactly the sort of student who would NOT be accepted at many charter schools, because many of them REQUIRE active parent support and involvement. Our public schools do not have the resources to cope with this, and this year the school has even fewer support staff because the state has lowered the funding levels. To turn around and blame this dysfunction on these half-starved institutions, and the teachers who work in them, is cruel and immoral.
It is true that our schools are not adequately serving all of our students, but to say that the schools are the root of the hopelessness in our communities is exactly backwards. The schools are struggling to offer hope, and are often the refuge for our students in the greatest need.
Governor Christie had a glint in his eye as he self-righteously condemned schools for being the root cause of hopelessness in his cities. But he and Arne Duncan, and every other politician who jumps on this bandwagon, have made a dangerous miscalculation in launching this war on teachers. Drug addicts and criminals were not truly to blame for the troubles laid at their door a decade or two ago - but they could not fight back. They couldn’t even vote, once they were convicted. But teachers are not only not to blame, we are capable of standing up and fighting back. Teachers in Florida showed us all how this could be done last spring when they defeated Senate Bill 6, which threatened to destroy their rights and tie their pay and evaluations to test scores.
Tuesday morning NBC’s Education Nation features a panel with the odious title, “The Lessons of New Orleans: Does Education Need a Katrina?” So we see what we are up against. They’re trying to wash us away and start over, with charters and TFA interns. This media hurricane is formidable. They have billionaires and Oprah, NBC news “reporters” and propaganda films, non-profit and for-profit charters and others who stand to gain from this, all waving the banner of this phony crusade.
We, the teachers, parents and students who know better, have ourselves, and our capacity to get organized and take a stand for our public schools. This Tuesday we at Teachers’ Letters to Obama will hold a REAL Teachers’ Round Table discussion, “Stop Griping, Start Organizing,” where we will hear from leaders in the effort to defend our schools from this onslaught. Our guests will include:
Jesse Turner, who recently marched from Connecticut to Washington, DC, to protest education policies, creator of the Facebook group Children are More than Test Scores.
Chris Janotta, of Million Teacher March.
Amy Valens, creator of the documentary movie, August to June, which offers a compelling portrait of what a nurturing school can be.
Leonie Haimson, a parent activist and founding member of Parents Across America
Lily Eskelson, NEA Vice President, who has been calling on teachers to become more active.
Children’s advocates Angela Engel and Dr. Anthony Dallman Jones.
Please sign up here.
What do you think? Are teachers being made into scapegoats? How can we be heard?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.