Equity & Diversity Opinion

John Kuhn at the NPE Conference: This is Our Education Spring

By Anthony Cody — March 04, 2014 13 min read
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John Kuhn, alongside Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, gave the keynote speech to the Network for Public Education conference on Saturday, March 1. He kindly gave me permission to share the text of his speech here. You can watch it here, thanks to the expert volunteer Vincent Precht.

Speech by John Kuhn, delivered on March 1, 2014, at the University of Texas in Austin.


You’re an impressive group. I’m looking out at a collection of some of the bravest and most outspoken advocates for America’s public education promise. That word--promise--is important, and it’s the title of this speech. There is a public school, funded by and accountable to the people, a school required to admit and educate every child, no matter where they live, anywhere you go in this country. There isn’t a square inch of America that doesn’t fall inside some school district or another. There isn’t a pupil who can’t walk into their local school and demand an education. This is no accident. This is by design. This is promised to us.

And that promise is under siege.

Today, a concentrated effort to shatter that promise has become a mainstream movement, supported by America’s richest individuals and corporations, by the foundations and think tanks they sponsor, and by influential politicians from both parties, whom the billionaires also sponsor. Other than you and me and advocates like us across our nation, there really isn’t much standing between us and a tomorrow dominated by for-profit chains of schools that educate the kids they want to educate and leave the public school system, the greatest and most noble and democratizing public trust we ever devised, drained of its strongest students, drained of funding, drained of vitality, a shell of what it once was. The public school building, more than any other structure in America, is where the people bring democracy to life. It is where the wealth of the nation is translated into action that serves the greater good, action that constructs the nation’s future by making strong boys and girls who are equipped to be free and thoughtful citizens, not career-ready or college-ready, but life-ready and capable of self-government, wise enough and critical enough that they won’t fall for tyranny in any form.

The public school system reveals the American heart. This system, because it’s us, in action--and I don’t mean “us” as teachers, but “us” as a people, “us” as a nation, as voters and citizens, charged with investing in and maintaining schools for our kids, schools for all kids, charged with sharing America’s wealth with one another because a house divided can’t stand, charged with caring and loving across our internal boundary lines, across our color lines and our language lines and our culture lines--because public education is made of and by and for the public, it can never be any better or worse than we are. If our schools are sick, it’s because our society is sick. And if our schools are well, then we are doing something right.

I don’t pretend there aren’t challenges. I won’t claim that all public schools serve their students equally well. But I will contend today, and tomorrow, and forever, that the best thing for every American student--from those in hugh-performing, high-funded suburban schools, to those in rural schools that are struggling to pay the bills, to those in urban schools struggling valiantly to overcome the pernicious ravages of a concentrated poverty that teachers did not create, teachers who in the newspeak of school reform are not allowed to talk about poverty without being called excuse-makers--I contend that the best thing for American students in each one of those contexts is the continuation and the preservation of the promise of public education. And I believe it is worth fighting for. I believe that teachers and parents and students who raise their voices and stand up, who risk their jobs as the teachers at Saucedo in Chicago have done just recently, I believe that these people and their risks and sacrifices are inspirational and heroic, that they aren’t fighting for themselves or their schools, or even their students, but something greater. They’re fighting to keep the fading light of American democracy burning, to fend off a new generation of robber barons whom the politicians are afraid to enrage. (But you’re not.) They are fighting bravely to preserve the promise of public education and all public trusts, to extend these promises to all citizens, as we said we would do when we made these promises in the first place.

When we give up on the promise, what then do we claim? Where do we go for redress of our grievances, once we’ve surrended our elected school boards and our constitutional guarantees? Do we march into the boardroom of a charter management group or some foundation? School reform is only backed by the assurances and sweet words of the corporate elite and their spokespeople, but the public education system is backed by the full faith and credit of the people of each state. When public education fails to deliver, we can seek redress at the ballot box and through the court system, which we have been doing and will continue to do until these promises are kept.

Public education is our trust fund, our nest egg. It belongs to our kids, and the kids of our kids, and nobody else can have it. They can’t take it away from us without a fight. We love our kids more than they love their portfolios. As fierce as they are, we’ll be fiercer. We only have to learn to love all kids like we love our own, to love kids in cities we’ll never visit, kids whose names and cultures and traditions may differ from ours. We have to love them enough to fight for them just as fiercely as we fight for our own--we have to love them enough so that those who enjoy ample school funding levels will insist that schools in poor neighborhoods be funded just as well, or even better in order to provide the kinds of services children in poverty need to be able to scale Maslow’s hierarchy and meet the prerequisites of learning--because they’re Americans just like us, and together we depend on America. We depend on each other. School funding inequity has to stop because their weakness is not my strength, their poverty is not my wealth, and their pain is not my comfort. Their strength is my strength. Their richness is my richness. Their well-being is my well-being. We are in this together. And public schools are for all of us.

The people made a promise. Alabama’s constitution says, “The legislature shall establish, organize, and maintain a liberal system of public education throughout the state for the benefit of the children.” Arkansas says that intelligence and virtue are safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government. Colorado says the state has to provide a thorough and uniform system of free public schools, open to all residents.

Those promises matter. Our ancestors were brave enough to make them. We have to be brave enough to keep them. We’re told to give up on getting our states to do what they said they’d do so many years ago; we’re urged to turn instead to free markets and corporations to deliver us the kind of education our kids deserve.

This is a foolish trade. Free market schools are under no obligation to serve all children, and the data show that the charter chains and voucher schools don’t serve all children. Competition doesn’t breed excellence. If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around. Competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting. It breeds the desperate search for any and all competitive advantages. This ethic is toxic to education. Look at the for-profit colleges perpetrating scams on our veterans, giving them worthless educations in exchange for the GI Bill dollars we invested in them. For-profit K-12 education is already showing these same predatory tendencies. Competition-based school reform doesn’t and won’t live up to the mythology that says all schools will rise as they compete for kids. That’s the rhetoric: when these schools have to compete for students, they’ll all do a better job. Problem is, it’s a lie. It hasn’t happened anywhere it’s been tried. From Chile to Sweden, Milton Friedman’s ideas have failed to deliver equity or excellence. Yet we read the breathless accounts of the miracle schools published over and over again, and debunked over and over again, usually by the people in this room. But the claims keep coming like car commercials during a football game. These schools invariably rely on marketing to sing their praises, they rely on selectively-published data to create the appearance of a rich education, they rely on expulsions, attrition, and intimidating parent agreements to rid their rosters of students most likely to struggle on state tests. One of their most vocal advocates said it best: “Some kids aren’t the right fit.”

I repudiate that notion with every fiber of my being. Every last kid in America--black, white, brown, or purple, kids with gay parents or straight parents or no parents, kids who don’t speak English, kids who don’t speak at all, kids who can’t walk or go to the bathroom, kids who have been abused, kids who have been loved, kids who love math and science and kids who love art and playing the trombone, kids who want to be welders and kids who love baseball, kids who just want a friend, kids who are lost and afraid, kids who just need love--every last one of them is the right fit in our schools. These are American children. They are the best kids we have. How dare you shake them out of your schools like so many dust particles. How dare the powers that be in our nation lift up a model of schooling that excludes any kid who needs and wants an education, and how dare they possess the temerity to call these exclusionary principles the civil rights issue of our time.

The whole setup is a scam, and it benefits people in power suits, not the children of America.

I’m not here speaking because I’m sticking up for teachers’ unions. That’s what our critics always say. And they’re careful to say teachers’ unions instead of just teachers, because they know that America loves its teachers. I don’t belong to a teachers’ union. I’m not even a teacher. I’m in management, and I live in a right-to-work state where teachers can’t strike. The union bogeyman won’t work to dismiss these words. I’m here speaking for one reason: I care about my country, I care about the future, and I love my kids. Anything that weakens public schools in the United States of America, weakens the nation. Our future depends upon our commitment to children more than anything else, and that commitment must extend to all children.

A system of selective and exclusionary schools spanning from coast to coast and competing for kids is not what we promised. It is a lesser promise, and maybe today we’re a lesser people with lesser ideals. Maybe we’ve given up on the optimism that we once had, an optimism that believed we were special and we had it in ourselves to create a society that was fair to all and would ensure that our children’s tomorrows were richer and happier and more just than our own yesterdays. I refuse to embrace that cynicism. I refuse to agree to the lesser promises of corporate education reform, and I will cling to the promises that were made so long ago. The Georgia constitution says, “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.”

A primary obligation.

And you and I, too, have a primary obligation to demand that these promises be kept.

Teachers and students have suffered for years under the burden of increasingly onerous state and federal education policies, a prevailing culture of teacher- and student-blaming, and a seemingly relentless campaign to reduce resources while increasing expectations. We must remind ourselves that we have the power to determine the future of education in the United States. When educators and the educated are empowered, reform doesn’t happen to them, it happens because of them.

Today, with groups like this one and so many others, all of which are active in so many ways, in so many parts of the country, we are standing on the threshold of the Education Spring. That sound you hear getting louder is called student voice, and it’s called teacher voice. Education reform isn’t their word anymore; it’s our word. They’re the corporate reformers--and they hate that phrase so we shoild keep using it--but we are the education reformers. We are the ones fighting to perfect public education, not scrap it. The status quo is thirty years of shaming and blaming, testing and then testing some more, and defunding our schools, closing our neighborhood schools instead of rushing to them with instructional help and facilities repairs and wraparound services. The status quo is a Pearson contract in Texas that is worth $500 million; the status quo is six full-time testing company lobbyists roaming the halls of our statehouse right here in Austin. The status quo is non-educators serving as state education commissioners all over the country, education chiefs who are purely political animals serving their parties instead of the students in their state. The status quo is half-baked algorithms that rate teachers on the test scores of students they’ve never taught. The status quo is rampant education privatization. They don’t like that word either so we should keep using it. They don’t want us to say corporate or privatization because they know that the people trust teachers a billion times more than they trust CEOs and their friends on Wall Street. The status quo is voucher schemes that keep getting struck down as unconstitutional, but they keep trying again. The status quo is a state inequitably funding education, investing fewer educational dollars in poor neighborhoods where the kids need education the most and investing more in the neighborhoods where the kids come from plenty. The status quo is a state attorney general spending state funds to defend a lawsuit against these types of funding abuses even though he and everyone else in the state knows it’s wrong.

We don’t support the status quo. We are the reformers. We’re here to shake up the educational world and our movement is only growing. This is our spring. This is our opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the people who have turned our kids’ education into a sandbox for the rich and famous, with hedge funders desperate for a new investment bubble and who give no thought to what their investments actually do to the nation. This is our chance to call out the Enrons of education, to go on record for democracy and against corporate malfeasance so that when these scams crumble--and they will--we can say “We told you so” and know that we were on the right side of history.

This is our opportunity to not back down, to be the supermen and superwomen American kids need, to put students first by fighting to preserve the promises made to them. This is our chance to stand proudly with our communities and our neighborhoods and our parents and our students and to say, “We support public education.” This is our chance to stand united from coast to coast as teachers and students and parents, to show the nation that the greater good is still real, and it’s still worth fighting for. If we don’t give up, and if we vote, and if we support pro-public education candidates for office, and if we ourselves run for office, we will see a change.

What do you think of John Kuhn’s words? How can we keep these promises?

John Kuhn is superintendent of schools in the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District, in the state of Texas. You can follow John Kuhn on Twitter here.

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