Growing Old Not the Problem, But Lack of Community Is

Since I teach mostly young people, college age, and have been an active cyclist with much younger friends for a while now, I have depended on a persistent self-deprecating joke about being old.

Since the end of 2016, a pelvis fracture, a winter of illnesses including the flu for the first time in decades, and then my mom’s stroke followed by my father’s death have all tempted me to shift that joke to a more serious view of life. However, I am increasingly convinced the problem with the human condition is not aging—which is inevitable and preferred to the alternative—but a lack of compassion and community in the U.S.

While literature and pop culture are awash in portrayals of the challenges that families bring, Kurt Vonnegut spent a great deal of his work as a writer—in speeches, essays, and fiction—arguing passionately for more human kindness as well as the importance of the extended family, an idealizing of tribal life that recognized the horror that is human loneliness.

Like most people, Vonnegut himself may have failed some or even often as a spouse, sibling, and father, but that doesn’t diminish the power and truth behind his essential message.

I suspect I have compassion for Vonnegut’s flaws since I share them along with his ideological commitments to kindness and community—regardless of how inept I can be at both.

And my curmudgeon tendencies are strong, but as I grow older, and as I struggle with the necessary deteriorations of aging, I am more and more apt to recognize the futility of lamenting aging, of fearing and regretting old age (whatever that may be).

I remain frustrated with aging, and my vanity is triggered more than I like to admit. But I am more convinced than ever that the real fear is a lack of communiy as I continue to struggle with how to provide for my mom the sort of late life she deserves despite the consequences of her stoke (which took a significant part of her humanity) and the barriers we are encountering because, to be blunt, she has very little money to sustain her—and the typically horrible insurance that most working-class and poor people are saddled with (if they have any at all) in the godforsaken U.S.

Many times I have lamented that in the U.S. we simply do not care about children, and about that I am both deeply saddened and convinced. But that callousness and carelessness is a subset of a much larger and damning part of the so-called American character: we simply do not care about any vulnerable populations: children, disabled people, carers, and the elderly.

The great and caustic residue of being a rugged-individual culture is that we are willfully choosing to reject community in favor of Social Darwinism, consumerism, and the all-mighty dollar.

Instead of social safety nets being a foundational commitment among us, we have chosen to cast everyone to the fate of the Invisible Hand, our claims to being a Christian nature reduced to so-much hokum in practice.

The cost of growing old is in fact not the deterioration of the mind and body, but the consequences of aging being magnified by a people who refuse to provide for vulnerable populations as an unwavering commitment to human dignity.

I will continue to joke with my younger students and friends about being old; it is fun and often a way to assert my humanity into an environment that I recognize will eventually discard me because of age, although my privileges of being male, white, and well-educated will inoculate me for quite some time.

Despite my many, many flaws, my anger about the callousness of the U.S. toward vulnerable populations is not about me, and extends well beyond my sadness at how the world does not really care about my aging and disabled mother.

My anger is reflected in why Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” has resonated so powerfully over the past several months. Smith forces us to admit “[t]he world is at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative/ estimate,” and she keeps us focused on the vulnerability of children.

My anger is enflamed because I do believe Smith’s closing lines: “This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”

My anger grows because I doubt we will ever assure that comes to fruition.

To squander vulnerable populations—from children to the elderly—is to abandon our souls, to spit in the face of beauty, to declare our society morally bankrupt.

“So it goes.”

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Innovative Deception: The Charter Scam Chronicles Continue

The school choice movement has its roots in mid-twentieth century, and was bolstered by some ugly truths about racism in the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement and public school integration.

While school choice advocacy has maintained some foundational catch phrases such as “innovation” and relied on appeals to uncritical faith in market forces over “the damned government,” school choice has also maintained two key patterns: (1) promises associated with school choice advocacy have mostly failed, and thus, (2) “choice” has morphed repeatedly into new versions to stay ahead of all the bad news about outcomes falling short of those promises.

The last decade, however, has revealed a school choice gold mine in the charter school movement that appears to blend the public’s support for public schools with the allure of parental choice.

However, on balance, charter school advocacy has proven to be mostly rhetoric and absent evidence in ways similar to the larger school choice movement.

Public and charter schools, for example, are currently plagued with rising segregation, and both embrace policies that can fairly be labeled racist and classist—leading the NAACP to maintain a strongly skeptical position about the credibility of charter schools.

And when charter schools appear to succeed where public schools do not, a careful analysis nearly always reveals that what is too good to be true is, in fact, not true.

School choice innovation, including charter school innovation, actually has little to do with education and more to do with keeping ahead of the evidence in order to maintain political and public support for finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

For a glimpse into how the charter movement seeks mostly to keep itself afloat, often at the expense of children and their families, consider Paul Bowers’s Erskine College’s new role as charter school gatekeeper could change landscape of public education.

Bowers hits a key point in the following:

Across the U.S., the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has been sounding the alarm about a trend it calls “authorizer shopping,” which it calls “a growing threat to overall charter school quality.”

“Authorizer shopping happens when a charter school chooses an initial authorizer or changes authorizers specifically to avoid accountability,” the group said in a 2016 report. “A low-performing school may shop for a new authorizer to avoid closure, or reopen under a new authorizer after closure.”

Also important to highlight is, as Bowers notes, how this new phase of charter expansion linked to less or no accountability is appealing to the least effective forms of charter schools:

Two of the first schools to express an interest in the new public charter school sponsor, the Charter Institute at Erskine College, are the S.C. Virtual Charter School and Cyber Academy of South Carolina. The two schools enrolled more than 4,000 students combined in kindergarten through 12th grade last school year.

The hard truths about educating children in a free society in order to create a more perfect union, to reach and sustain an equitable democracy, are that public education has mostly failed the children who need it most because the U.S. is plagued by political cowardice and that schemes labeled “education reform” are mostly even worse alternatives (including school choice and charter schools) to the mismanaged public system.

Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. called for addressing poverty directly and thus eradicate related social inequities and empower public institutions:

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. …

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

King’s plea has been repeatedly justified since the claims that education is the great equalizer never materializes. For example, in Equal Pay Day for African-American Women, By the Numbers Emily Crockett confronts:

African-American women only earn 64 cents to every dollar earned by non-Hispanic white men, according to the NWLC analysis; the figure for women overall is 77 cents. That’s based on the average earnings of female and male full-time, year-round workers taken from Census data.

The pay gap for Black women varies based on age and industry. Older Black women have it the hardest—the pay gap is only 82 cents on the dollar for 15-year-old to 24-year-old Black women compared to white men, but the gap widens to 67 cents and 59 cents, respectively, for Black women ages 25-to-44 and 45-to-64.

As for industries, Black women working as physicians and surgeons—a high-wage and male-dominated occupation—make only 52 cents for every dollar paid to their white male counterparts. Black women fared slightly better in lower-paid occupations, making 86 cents on the dollar in male-dominated, mid-wage construction industries and 85 cents on the dollar working as low-wage, mostly female personal care aides. …

The fact that Black women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs doesn’t help, the analysis said. Black women make up 14 percent of low-wage workers and 6 percent of the overall workforce.

Education levels don’t make much of an impact on the high wage gap between Black women and non-Hispanic white men. While more education corresponds with higher wages for both Black women and white men, Black women still make between 61 and 66 cents on the dollar compared to their counterparts at every education level [emphasis added]. African-American women have to have at least a Bachelor’s degree to make as much as white men who didn’t finish college.

This equity gap along race and gender lines is a lingering and powerful fact in the U.S.

Education reform, then, especially under the guise of school choice/charter schools, is once again failing to address directly the root causes of why we believe public education needs reform in the first place.

The only real innovation among the charter school advocates is how many ways they can avoid the hard truths about reforming schools and the impotence of education to overcome social inequity and injustice.

Parental Choice, Magical Thinking, and the Paralysis of Indirect Solutions

Parental choice #1: Seeking a school for their white children so they will not have to attend classes with black or brown children.

Parental choice #2: Seeking a school where their wealthy children will not have to attend classes with poor children.

Parental choice #3: Seeking a school where children will be taught Intelligent Design, but not evolutionary biology.

Parental choice #4: Not allowing their children to be vaccinated.

Parental choice #5: Smoking in the house and car while children are present.

I could continue for quite some time with the hypotheticals, but let’s turn to what we know about parental choice and education.

A 2007 study by a pro-school choice organization in Wisconsin reached the following conclusions:

Taken as a whole, these numbers indicate significant limits on the capacity of public school choice and parental involvement to improve school quality and student performance within MPS. Parents simply do not appear sufficiently engaged in available choice opportunities or their children’s educational activities to ensure the desired outcomes.

This may be just as well. Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim MPS may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district’s schools. Recognizing this, the question is whether the district, its schools, and its supporters in Madison are prepared to embrace more radical reforms. Given the high stakes involved, district parents should insist on nothing less.

More recently, in School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture, Jan Resseger explains:

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

In the hypothetical and real contexts above, then, I am struck by Jack Markell’s assertion: School Choice Works, Privatization Won’t—notably after rejecting vouchers, his proposal: “That means using parent choice among traditional, charter, and magnet schools to foster innovative instruction, and hold public schools accountable for giving students the best opportunities possible.” [1]

I think we must acknowledge the final point—”best opportunities possible”—while adding “all” before “students” above; however, we cannot allow the essential magical thinking about choice and idealistic framing of parental choice to go unchallenged.

Let me offer next a much broader context.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed “the treatment of poverty nationally” by arguing:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Choice, market forces, the Invisible Hand—these are always indirect methods, and in many cases, magical thinking. The market might accomplish goals that benefit a people, and if so, that process is slow, characterized by fits and starts, and entirely dependent on the consumers—their wants, needs, and abilities to exercise choice.

So let’s return to parental choice #4 above.

What happens to public health if vaccinations are left to the choice of parents, the market?

In other words, the sloppy and chaotic nature of the market to address the quality of cable TV or Internet providers seems something we can tolerate.

But public health?

And this question, I think, is the same for public education.

Promoting the indirect impact of parental choice to accomplish the clear and obvious responsibilities that a public institution not only can but also must fulfill [2] is a tragic failure of a people, an ethical failure.

If we genuinely as a people viewed any child as everyone’s child, we could in the course of public funding and public schooling create the sort of educational opportunities that every child deserves, but currently only the elite are guaranteed because of the dynamics of choice trumping the assurances of the Commons and the stratifying policies driving traditional schooling [3].

And thus Markell’s final bi-partisan wink-wink-nod-nod to Jeb Bush to assert “policymakers should be ‘more daring’ when it comes to education policy” rings hollow since political leaders embracing choice are in fact shirking their responsibility and obligation to act in the service of all people.

[1] Of course, there is always the nasty implication among choice/market advocates and the “no excuses” crowd that teachers and children are just not trying hard enough. And as I detail above, those exact people are supporting letting the market “work” instead of them actually working. So once again, I invoke: “I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner), Airplane 2: The Sequel.

[2] See note above, ironically, exposed by parental choice and the market: Just what are the characteristics of the elite private schools wealthy parents choose for their children—the exact political leaders who say class size doesn’t matter but their children’s school has 155 teachers for 1150 students (a 1:7.4 ratio)? And it is here that we have the “best opportunities possible” before us while political leaders remain paralyzed, unwilling to guarantee for “other people’s children” what they cede to the market since, of course, the market favors them.

[3] And let’s ponder how the system benefits the wealthy: Would the SAT and all standardized tests be so entrenched in the U.S. educational system if their gatekeeping effects denied wealthy children grade promotion, graduation, and college entrance? Hint: No.

Charter Schools, the Invisible Hand, and Gutless Political Leadership

Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy’s experience introduces readers to Tralfamadorians:

The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings, especially about time….

The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the we way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a strong, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. (pp. 33, 34)

One of the most memorable moments of Billy becoming unstuck in time is his watching a war movie backward. Viewed in reverse, the film becomes a narrative of renewal, of peace, as fighter planes “sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen,” and “[t]he bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes” (pp. 93, 94).

In the spirit of folding time back onto itself to give us clarity of sight, let’s become unstuck in time while viewing American Indian Charter Schools.

Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education?

Like Billy watching a war film, we start now and move backward.

Jill Tucker reports (June 26, 2013) that American Indian Charter Schools have had their charter revoked by Oakland Unified school district:

The American Indian charter schools, which enroll 1,200 students in grades K-12, are among the highest-scoring in the state on standardized tests.

Yet Oakland district officials said they had a duty to the public to close the schools given the inability of the schools’ management to rein in the misuse of taxpayer money.

A 2012 state audit of the charter organization found several instances of financial impropriety, including $3.8 million in payments to the school’s former director, Ben Chavis, and his wife through real estate deals, consulting agreements and other services, raising ethical questions and conflict-of-interest concerns.

The decision was supported by the state’s leading charter school advocates.

“In this situation, it is clear that academic performance is not enough to either overlook or excuse the mismanagement of public funds and the unwillingness from the board of directors to respond in ways that would satisfactorily address the legitimate concerns raised by OUSD,” said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, in a letter to the board in support of the revocation.

Mitchell Landsberg explains—in a provocatively titled “Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education” (May 31, 2009)—about American Indian Charter Schools:

Conservatives, including columnist George Will, adore the American Indian schools, which they see as models of a “new paternalism” that could close the gap between the haves and have-nots in American education. Not surprisingly, many Bay Area liberals have a hard time embracing an educational philosophy that proudly proclaims that it “does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance.”

It would be easy to dismiss American Indian as one of the nuttier offshoots of the fast-growing charter school movement, which allows schools to receive public funding but operate outside of day-to-day district oversight. But the schools command attention for one very simple reason: By standard measures, they are among the very best in California….

“What we’re doing is so easy,” said Ben Chavis, the man who created the school’s success and personifies its ethos, especially in its more outrageous manifestations. (One example: He tends to call all nonwhite students, including African Americans, “darkies.”) Although he retired in 2007, Chavis remains a presence at the school.

Focusing on American Indian Charter Schools among five other “no excuses” schools adopting a new paternalism,  David Whitman (2008, Fall) praises the accomplishments and possibilities of these schools:

Yet above all, these schools share a trait that has been largely ignored by education researchers: They arepaternalistic institutions. By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often-forbidding paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.

The new breed of paternalistic schools appears to be the single most effective way of closing the achievement gap. No other school model or policy reform in urban secondary schools seems to come close to having such a dramatic impact on the performance of inner-city students. Done right, paternalistic schooling provides a novel way to remake inner-city education in the years ahead….

Still, these entrepreneurial school founders battle on, slowly replicating their institutions across the country. It is too soon to say that all of the copycat schools will succeed. But the early results are extremely encouraging. It is possible that these schools, so radically different from traditional public schools, could one day educate not just several thousand inner-city youngsters but tens or even hundreds of thousands of students in cities across the nation. Done well, paternalistic schooling would constitute a major stride toward reducing the achievement gap and the lingering disgrace of racial inequality in urban America.

The Invisible Hand and Gutless Political Leadership

Backward or forward, this story is ugly. “No excuses” and the new paternalism themselves are classist and racist—ways in which the middle class and affluent allow “other people’s children” to be treated, but not their own—yet the larger faith in the Invisible Hand is the ugliest part of the narrative.

Idealizing parental choice narrowly and choice broadly is the foundation upon which both political parties stand. Why is the Invisible Hand of the Free Market so appealing to political leaders?

The answer is simple: Abdicating political leadership to the market absolves our leaders from making any real (or ethical) decisions, absolves them from doing anything except sitting back and watching the cards fall where they may.

And thus the charter school movement, with its school-choice light that allows progressives to tap into their closeted libertarian. Experimenting with impoverished children, African American children, Latino/a children, English Language Learners, and special needs children—this is the acceptable playground for the Invisible Hand.

Political leaders bask in the glory of Capitalism because the free market requires no moral conviction, no ethical stands, no genuine decision making based on careful consideration of foundational commitments to democracy and human dignity and agency. Capitalism allows Nero to sit and fiddle while Rome burns. If the fire needs putting out, and someone can monetize that, the market will take care of it, right?

Political leadership has ignored and marginalized children in poverty for decades, notably in the schools we provide high-poverty, majority-minority communities. The school-choice light commitment to charter schools is a coward’s way out of facing that reality and doing anything about it.

So it goes.

Beyond Choice: The Invisible Hand v. Lady Justice

Free market advocates have sought a series of talking points and justifications for an equally wide array of school choice formats over the past twenty to twenty-five years, primarily because the public has been resistent to school choice plans.

One tactic common among choice advocates is to associate the Invisible Hand of the market with Lady Justice, blurring the essential nature of choice and competition as sorting mechanisms with the goal of equity among educators seeking social justice: “People in poverty deserve the same choice affluent people have,” goes the claim.

Lady Justice

American capitalism has a long history of demonizing the Commons as “government” and idealizing corporate America as the “free” market, and part of that narrative includes ignoring the place of the Commons as a foundation upon which a free market can thrive.

The Invisible Hand, however, driven by choice and competition always sorts and never attends to social justice or equity.

Take for example the facts around Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware’s broken leg during the Elite 8 round of the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament.

As David Sirota has explained, Louisville does not guarantee scholarships (if Ware’s injury renders him unable to play basketball again, he loses his scholarship) and even Ware’s medical bills may fall on his shoulders.

Yet, the Invisible Hand sees not the problem of equity and justice in Ware’s situation, but that Ware and his injury are marketable, explains Dave Zirin:

On Wednesday we learned that Adidas, in conjunction with the University of Louisville athletic department, will be selling a $24.99 t-shirt with Kevin Ware’s number 5 and the slogan “Rise to the Occasion” emblazoned across the back. His team will also be wearing warm-ups with Ware’s name, number and the slogan “All In.”…

You almost have to tip your cap: no non-profit does buccaneer profiteering quite like the NCAA. What other institution would see a tibia snap through a 20-year-old’s skin on national television and see dollar signs? In accordance with their rules aimed at preserving the sanctity of amateurism, not one dime from these shirts will go to Kevin Ware or his family. Not one dime will go toward Kevin Ware’s medical bills if his rehab ends up beneath the $90,000 deductible necessary to access the NCAA’s catastrophic injury medical coverage. Not one dime will go towards rehab he may need later in life.

This is the ethics of the market: Is there a market? And what selling price will that market bear against the cost of producing the goods?

Little concern for right or wrong occurs unless the Commons are involved.

Commons such as the legal system were necessary to end child labor [1] or worker abuse as portrayed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or American slavery—all of which were beneficial to the market.

Consider the free market police force in the science fiction allegory RoboCop, or that market-based military forces are mercenaries.

The capital-based market corrupts, but the Commons seek, preserve, and spread equity as long as they remain above capital and beyond choice.

So let’s return to the compelling “People in poverty deserve the same choice affluent people have”—to which I say, No.

People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.

And then it is upon this Commons beyond choice that the Invisible Hand may create an economy that a free people deserve.

[1] The market-based call for merit pay in education creates child labor.