Opinion
Early Childhood Opinion

Sanders, Clinton, Detroit, and the $675,000 Speech Problem

By Dave Powell — February 05, 2016 5 min read
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So you might be reading that apparent word salad up there in the headline wondering: What is this all about? Colonel Sanders? George Clinton? Detroit? All of that makes sense; but $675,000 for giving speeches? That’s taking it too far.

Okay, so we’re talking about Bernie Sanders, not Harland; and Hillary Clinton, not George. You probably already know about the relentless attack Sanders has leveled at Clinton for giving three separate motivational speeches to executives at Goldman Sachs for a cool $225,000 apiece. You might also have heard about Clinton’s deeply unsatisfying response: “That’s what they offered.” Or maybe Sanders is wrong. Maybe she really is like the rest of us. Who among us wouldn’t take $675,000 to share a few thoughts on leadership with a crowd of folks who don’t mind paying to hear them? Especially in this economy.

It might be easy to dismiss this exchange as irrelevant to education and education policy, but think again. If you’re a teacher you probably know that the two major teachers unions—the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—already got out in front of their memberships and endorsed Clinton for president. There are many good reasons to believe, if you’re an educator, that Clinton will do more to support education than any of the dozens of other candidates running for president. There may be ample reasons, on the other hand, to think that others might even do more. But that’s a little beside the point here.

Clinton’s speaking fee has become an issue because it dovetails nicely with Sanders’ claim that big money has a corrupting influence on the way elected leaders make decisions. In fact, Clinton all but called Sanders out when they debated last night, accusing him of an “artful smear” and telling him to come right out and say it if he thinks she’s been corrupted by Wall Street money. He declined to do that, and doing so probably wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway. That’s because, to me, the issue isn’t whether or not Goldman Sachs’ unlimited pile of money would cause Clinton to put Wall Street’s interests ahead of the interests of everyday people; it seems perfectly plausible to think that Clinton could accept their hefty speaking fees as a non-candidate (which she was at the time) and still run the government in a responsible way that balances their interests against the interests of others if she becomes president.

What blows my mind about this exchange—and what makes Sanders’ attention to these speaking fees so devastating—is the incomprehensible sum of money involved. If Clinton had accepted $5,000 to do these engagements Sanders might still have made the case he’s making, albeit to less effect. But the fact that she accepted almost fifty times as much, and did it three times, opens her to a different kind of criticism. It would take most teachers over ten years to make that kind of money. She did it in three nights.

And that’s where Detroit comes in. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that Detroit hit hard times a couple of decades ago and never really recovered. Now we know that the people of Flint were, for all intents and purposes, knowingly poisoned by their government. And Detroit’s schools, meanwhile, are a mess—to put it mildly:

Rats and cockroaches scurry through the hallways, water leaks through the roof, toilets are broken, windows are littered with bullet holes and a musty aroma fills the air. Sometimes, Shoniqua Kemp wonders whether her children would be better off going to school in a developing country instead of coping with the deplorable conditions at Osborn Evergreen Academy—one of numerous public schools in Detroit now under threat of closure due to unsafe and deteriorating conditions overseen by Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager for the city of Flint, Mich., which is now suffering a water crisis.

If you follow this link you can read the rest of the story, but be prepared: you’re not headed over to ProPublica or the Hechinger Report or NPR or the New York Times or to any of the usual sources. Click that link and you’ll be off to read about the crisis unfolding in Detroit’s public schools...in People magazine. Show up for the investigative piece about Detroit’s crumbling public infrastructure and the horrifying impact it’s having on teachers and kids, stay for the stories about Angelina Jolie and Jack Black talking about Spirit Animals (And Their Nuts!) and Rob Kardashian’s Beardless Beach Day With Blac Chyna.

That nonsense aside, what does it say that this story is appearing in People magazine—that we’ve turned our backs on the actual lives of kids attending school (and teachers working there) under deplorable circumstances? Kudos to People for addressing a serious issue; but consider, for a second, that we live in a world where this could be happening and it’s such an outrage that even an entertainment magazine is picking up the story—but no one seems to be doing anything about it.

And now is when we circle back to Hillary Clinton’s $675,000 speaking fees. Because we also live in a world where a person can be paid $675,000 to deliver motivational pablum to some of the richest people in the world while kids go to school in unsafe conditions. I could understand Clinton saying, especially under these circumstances, “that’s what they offered—but I turned around and took their money and used it to create a separate foundation that supports the recovery of urban school districts facing financial ruin because of the irresponsibility of their elected officials.” Or: “I had a blast blowing half that money on projects at DonorsChoose.org"; or: “I funded every teacher-requested grant in the whole state of South Carolina; so what if I did it right before the primary? You got a problem with well-timed philanthropy? Is Sanders going to accuse me of buying votes for giving Wall Street’s money to teachers and school kids?” Unfortunately for her, Stephen Colbert beat her to the punch on that one. Even more unfortunately, she never apparently had any of these ideas in the first place.

That’s a shame. The fact that Clinton never seemed to be prepared for the question says a lot more than Bernie Sanders ever could about whether her speaking fees were appropriate. But that’s not an unforgivable sin. What’s most disappointing is that she could not think about these things in a world where school funding is so uneven and where so many kids (not just in Detroit, by the way) go school in buildings that practically scream at them every day: this what the rest of society thinks of you. Have a nice day.

In the end, though, my target isn’t Hillary Clinton so much as it is the architects of an economy that persistently and remorselessly leaves kids behind—and then turns around and blames teachers and schools for it. To blame Clinton for not being more generous may be unfair and even a little impertinent. The real problem here is that people who make millions of dollars a year already have 2/3 of a million dollars they can toss away on speaking fees for their own entertainment. That makes no sense to me.

We seriously need to re-examine our priorities. There’s plenty of money in this economy, obviously; just ask Goldman Sachs. What would it take for more of it to be spent on kids and their teachers instead of blowing it on motivational speaking fees? Is that too much to ask?

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