I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

UPDATED: Are Americans Allowed To Debate Education Anymore?

Time to once again play Spot The Pattern™! Before we begin, here's a clue about our theme:

All emphases mine unless noted. Let's start with Montclair, NJ (click through to watch the video):
When Montclair's teachers union president could not finish her prepared statement Monday night, the public did so for her. 
Copies of Montclair Education Association President Gayl Shepard's remarks were distributed to the dozens of teachers, parents and community members seated in the Montclair High School auditorium after Shepard was limited to talking for three-minutes due to a newly imposed change in the meeting agenda. 
Read Shepard's complete remarks.(Right click to open in a new window and read along) 
"The most discouraging aspect about the Board’s decision to remove the MEA from the Public Meeting Agenda, is that it is yet another attack on the longstanding culture of our town that celebrates collaboration," Shepard said. 
After Shepard was cut short, a parent at the podium picked up where she left off with dozens of members of the public, including Shepard, joining in to read the remarks in unison. 
The action was followed by applause and cheers from members of the teachers union that, according to Shepard, represents 92% of the district's employees.

Towson, MD (update below):
At a Towson, Maryland school board meeting on Thursday, a parent attempting to ask questions about Common Core was arrested and charged with second-degree assault of a police officer.  The event was recorded by another parent, and later related by yet another to Michelle Malkin.  Robert Small focused on the lowering of educational standards in his complaint, saying “You are not preparing them for Harvard,” but rather a community college.  
The meeting was a question-and-answer session organized by Superintendent Dallas Dance, but – as is becoming increasingly common – questions were submitted on paper and select questions were answered, rather than allowing parents to stand up and speak.  This format allows for the censoring of questions, and indeed the questions answered by the meeting’s panel were, according to the person videotaping, “softball” questions. 
“In a nutshell, it was an hour and a half long and the first hour was Dallas Dance, Lillian Lowery, a PTA leader, and a teacher from Cantonsville High School basically tell us how great this was going to be.”  Multiple parents in the room had already shown frustration at the question selection when Small stood up and began to ask challenging questions.  He spoke briefly before being escorted out by security and arrested.  “He was just a dad trying to get some information about his children’s education and ended up in jail for not sitting down and shutting up,” the letter said.
Los Angeles:

  • Near the end of the event, Steve Perry was making his last comment in response to an LAUSD teacher who screamed out earlier during the event in rage as the panelists did not answer the second “controversial” question.
  • When Perry said that “the students’ interests did not line up with the union’s interests”, I drew the line.
  • I pulled the poster out of my backpack and held up high right in the middle of Perry’s speech. It caught all the panelists’ eyes but Perry continued to speak.
  • A security guard came over and told me to give him the sign while simultaneously pulling it away from me.
  • I tugged back and caused a bit of noise that attracted some attention.
  • After Perry finished speaking, the moderator was about to close the event when George Parker interrupted her and insisted that I be given a chance to speak.
  • The moderator insisted that no one else would be given a chance to speak.
  • The woman next to me (who was shouting curses against unions the whole night and was the cause for my gigantic headache) ironically yelled that I should be given the chance to speak.
  • The whole room began to cheer and egg me on, and so the man with the microphone gave me the chance to speak.
  • Completely enraged, totally flustered, and quite honestly a little nervous, I gave my two-minute speech and was cut off before I could get to the good part. (Stay tuned for a post about what I WOULD HAVE said if I got more time.) [Last emphasis is not mine; the others are mine]
The audience bristled at times, calling Rhee "disingenuous" and questioning the corporate backing behind many education reform organizations. Many audience members also expressed displeasure with the way organizers structured the town hall. Many said that the event didn't deliver the "honest conversation"  that was billed and that the moderator too quickly quashed the room's dissenting voices.

The school board imposed a new, more restrictive policy on public comment Monday that critics said could limit debate at the meetings.

Effective for the Chicago Public Schools' Board of Education monthly meeting set for Jan. 23, anyone wishing to make a public comment must register online, by phone or in person the week before.

The registration period opened Monday and runs through 5 p.m. Thursday at the latest. Only 60 slots are open for the scheduled two hours of public comment, and 33 were taken right away Monday morning.
CPS has gradually imposed the pre-registration requirement. It introduced advanced online and phone registration in November, but still allowed those wishing to make public comments to register the day of the meeting for any available slots through December. Day-of registration was no longer available beginning this year.
CPS officials did not say why they chose to cut off registration a week in advance of the meetings.
But critics said the change makes it harder to participate.
"This new process alienates most people," said Katelyn Johnson, executive director of the community organization Action Now. "The board meetings were already ridiculously inaccessible, with people sometimes having to sleep over in order to get a chance to speak. This is on top of the fact that they are held downtown during hours when most people are at work. Having online registration adds another hoop to jump through, creating more distance between the already out-of-touch board and the community, parents and students."
Since most parents and community members have to work during the day, "they're only allowing one side of the debate," Johnson added.
New Orleans:

The crowd grew visibly frustrated at times during the meeting, eager to interject as administration discussed high staff turnover and the process by which contracts were renewed.

Contracts were a particularly sensitive subject as two of four network school principals resigned with only weeks left in the school year.

“Do we have any other questions or comments about that?” Ryan asked.
Mildred Labostrie, whose granddaughter will be in second grade next year at Gentilly Terrace, thought he was posing the question to the public.
She began to speak up to address the board.
Ryan interjected, “I’m sorry we had our time for public comment, we can’t have the public participate in the board meeting. I apologize, I’m sorry about that, but we have to do it that way.”
“I know you said you can’t hear my comment, OK,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Ryan said.
Their voices escalated as they talked over one another.
Labostrie objected, saying that at the time he called for comment, the board hadn’t yet started talking about the topic she wanted to speak to.
“But you didn’t address it at the appropriate time, you don’t have an opportunity to address it now. I’m sorry,” said Ryan. “We can address it at the next board meeting.”
Labostrie stormed out, granddaughter in tow.
Scranton, PA:
The Scranton School Board approved an administrative hiring policy on Tuesday night - a policy that the public had not seen and had no opportunity to comment on before the vote. 
The policy, which is the first time the district has guidelines for how to hire principals, vice principals, a superintendent or assistant superintendent, requires new administrators to live within the city and awards points for a series of interviews, a writing sample, grade-point average for a graduate degree, experience, military service and for being a district graduate. 
Voting on the policy was not on Tuesday's agenda, nor was it ever discussed at a public meeting. Directors said the policy, which included collaboration from the directors and from Superintendent William King, was discussed at executive sessions, which are closed to the public. The policy was approved 8-0, with Director Bill Fox absent.
And, of course, New York, home of the NBC network:

Yesterday I received an invitation to sit in the audience at NBC’s Education Nation.

I regret to say that I will decline, as I am very busy these days.

You will see some familiar names, like Secretary Arne Duncan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ex-Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Bobby Jindal, Dr. John Deasey, Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs), David Coleman (architect of the Common Core standards), Governor Mike Pence of Indiana (but not Glenda Ritz, who defeated Tony Bennett), Mitch Daniels (the ex-governor of Indiana, Tony Bennett (the singer, not the defeated state superintendent). Quite a number of people known for supporting privatization of public education and high-stakes testing.
But, other than Randi Weingarten and David Kirp, you won’t find any of the prominent figures who oppose the corporate model of measure-punish-close schools-fire teachers-TFA, etc. No Linda Darling-Hammond, no Deborah Meier, no Richard Rothstein, no John Kuhn, no Nancy Carlsson-Paige, no Carol Burris, no Leonie Haimson, none of the wonderful brave teachers, principals, superintendents, and parents who have bravely fought a failing set of federal and state policies.
No innovative thinking here, just the Voices of the Status Quo.
So let's start with the school board meetings. There are thousands of school boards across the country, which means, inevitably, that some will be populated by petty despots intent on closing down dissent. I know I've given only a small sample here. Still, this wave of censorship feels different to me; something is changing, and it's not for the better. Maybe schools boards are feeling besieged; maybe they are tired of dealing with people they consider crackpots.

If so, my response is: too damn bad. This is a democracy, and people have the right to speak their minds to their officials -- especially at the school district level, the jurisdiction in our nation that is the smallest and, therefore, closest to the people. If there was ever a ruling body that should allow public commentary on the issues before it, it's the American school board.

As to Rhee's little kabuki and the pathetic attempt at civic engagement that is NBC's "Education Nation": is it not clear just how cowardly these people are? Have they so little faith in the attractiveness of their ideas that they are unwilling to allow even a small amount of dissent at their "town halls"? Have they so little confidence in their own ability to articulate a clear, coherent vision of education "reform" that they dare not put themselves into a position where they might have to speak beyond the level of platitudes?

Norman Rockwell is hardly the first name that comes into my mind when thinking about counter-hegemony. But I find a few deeper meanings in Freedom of Speech. The speaker is the worst-dressed man in the room. He's got the town report in his pocket; he's informing himself. He's looking up at his "betters," but he's not looking away. The elderly gentleman to his right is listening, and he's approving. This common man is exercising his rights, and in doing so, is changing the debate.

In Rockwell's America, then, we're not supposed to just sit down and shut up. We need to inform ourselves, but once we've done that, we have an obligation to speak out. The founding fathers meant for us to debate -- that's the entire point.

When did this become a problem? We did we decide this core value of democracy wasn't as important as making sure the questions for our officials and our "experts" are processed and homogenized and hermetically sealed? When did we all agree that the people who shape our policies -- particularly our education policies -- are such fragile flowers that they must be protected from the rough and tumble of deliberative democracy?

Nobody should abuse their right to free speech and denigrate public officials gratuitously. No one should act obnoxiously at a "town hall." But it's a far worse sin to turn these institutions into shams, playing at free expression while really quashing it. If you can't take sharp, pointed criticism and stand by your actions, your words, and your record, get out of public service and the public eye. The last thing we need right now are "leaders" who are too chicken to engage in real debate.

UPDATE: Looks like the charges against the dad in Towson, MD were dropped:
Charges were dropped against a father accused of assaulting a Baltimore County police officer at a school board meeting, prosecutors said Monday. 
Robert Small, of Ellicott City, attended a state Board of Education forum at Ridge Ruxton School in Baltimore County last Thursday night. He's concerned about the state implementing a new set of standards called Common Core. 
"I moved my family out to Howard County because of the reputation of the schools," Small said at the meeting. 
Small was charged with second-degree assault after an encounter with a police officer working as a security officer for the meeting. The Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office said Monday that Small will not face charges.  
Small had been upset the board didn't allow dialogue and only let parents ask questions submitted on pieces of paper handed to the board to answer. 
A representative for the state Board of Education said a Q&A with parents took too long at prior forums and written questions allowed for more of them to be answered more efficiently. [emphasis mine]
Let's break this down. The video's above, and you can see what happened: this guy went on a little too long for the board's liking, so a police officer came down and physically intimidated and removed him from the meeting. Again: he was man-handled because the people running the meeting didn't want to hear what he had to say.
The police report indicates Small pushed the officer in the meeting and struck the officer in the arm in the lobby. Someone else attending the meeting recorded it all and posted it on YouTube. 
Prosecutors released a statement saying, "It was clear that the officer acted appropriately and did have probable cause to make an arrest on both charges, but in the interest of justice, further prosecution will not accomplish anything more." 
Really? That's "clear"? On what basis did the officer have any right whatsoever to lay hands on a man who was speaking at a public meeting? Was he inciting a riot? Was he personally abusive? Threatening?

Or was he saying something these people didn't want to hear?

Apparently, making people in power uncomfortable is now enough to get you an arrest record in America. And it's "appropriate" for cops (Was he on duty? Because that doesn't look like a police uniform to me.) to push you around and arrest you for daring to making public officials squirm with your questions.

But this doesn't bother the Maryland State BOE:
Meanwhile, Maryland's State Board of Education said it will not change the way it conducts public forums to explain the common core education standards. 
The common core altercation was never mentioned at the monthly state school board meeting, but the incident was still fresh on the mind of State School Superintendent Lillian Lowery. 
"I am glad it has been resolved. I am glad to know that the charges have been dropped," Lowery said. 
The school superintendent said the format used in Baltimore County is the same one used across the state, one she said offers parents some flexibility. 
"We believe that between having an open situation where we can get as many questions answered as we possibly can and staying after to answer any individual questions that we are covering all the bases," Lowery said. 
The state school board president also stands behind the process. 
"Change is sometimes difficult. We also know that change causes us to ask questions in a different way and certainly here with this board we've been asking questions and we're very satisfied with the responses we're getting from Dr. Lowery and her team," President of the State Board of Education Charlene Dukes said. 
Thank goodness the MDBOE is so enlightened that they are willing to drop charges against a dad who took too long to ask a question about his kids' education. What freakin' patriots...

Maryland State BOE

UPDATE II: More from Philly:
As of yesterday morning, there were five public meetings left for parent comment on the report cards. But at the last minute, the District canceled yesterday’s 11 a.m. meeting and all the rest of the public meetings, saying it did so in response to parent concerns. A reporter told a parent that the District is no longer interested in “open-ended conversations” and will restructure the sessions to require parents to give narrow input into the school report card content. [emphasis mine]
Didn't they write some sort of document in Philadelphia a long time ago in support of free speech? Thinking...


Deb said...

Which is why I feel so strongly that those of us fighting for public schools need to set the example of open discourse, even when we do not all agree, so that in our fight for what is right we are representing those values at the same time.

Thank you Duke for covering this critical and scary trend seen nationwide. It is yet another attack on core values of democracy. But strong voices in opposition are being heard as well. And we shall not be moved.

ms-teacher said...

And when I have gotten up to speak about the worsening working conditions, the bullying of teachers, and other issues facing the people I represent, I've been accused of being "confrontational," and "angry."

It all feels like a very concerted effort to stifle dissent across the US.

Norma Ray said...

When I question, speak up and share facts and alternate POVs from leading educators on the 'reform' movement at faculty meetings, I'm told by my supervisors that I'm not being a good team player. No, I'm not. And that will not change.

Deb said...

And from yesterday's NJ Spotlight article on the new Superintendent in Camden, this chilling quote:

Rouhanifard’s words as he closed to business portion of the meeting reminded everyone there would be only one vote that counts: “In accordance with the authority of the state superintendent … I, Paymon Rouhanifard, approve the agenda items.”

Mrs. King's music students said...

Almost like he's being paid now to take the hits 3 years from now when Christie runs for pres.