Monday, August 10, 2015

Fighting Democracy

There are two questions coming out of the discussions about New Orleans and its privatized school system.

1) Did student achievement actually improve?

2) If that improvement did happen, was it worth the price?

The answer to the first question is "Probably not" (though the careful secrecy and hoarding of data makes a definitive answer difficult), but we can still move on to the second question without a definitive answer to the first, because the price in NOLA was the suspension of "local control," which is another way to say "democracy."

On twitter and in the blogs, reformsters like to frame the struggle as one between the rights of students and the preservation of the institution. "I won't sacrifice the needs of students to preserve the privilege of the school system," is a familiar construction.

But the school system is an arm of democracy.

Granted, democracy has some problems these days. We can get angry about outside interests taking over the Douglas County school board (check out the new documentary Education, Inc for a closer look)-- but only 17% of the voters actually voted. Large cities like Chicago and New York have long since mastered the art of subverting democracy. And that's before we get to the areas where politicians have come up with new and creative ways to keep the non-white and the non-wealthy from voting.

But the solution to a problem of Not Enough Democracy is not Less Democracy.

When certain areas of the country worked to disenfranchise black citizens, the best solution, the right solution, the democratic solution was NOT for wealthy, connected folks from outside those communities to come in and say, "Tell you what. We will go ahead and get the people elected that we think you need. We're not going to give your own vote, but we will go ahead and be sure to elect people who will create programs that we think you need."

No. The solution when an American citizen is deprived of his or her right to democracy is to restore that right.

For year upon year, the response to a movement to give women a vote was to say, "Hey, they don't need it. The menfolk will vote in their best interest. "

For year upon  year, the response to calls for emancipation was, "Black folks don't need to be freed. The slaveowners look after them and see that their best interests are taken care of."

It would be bad enough if the policy makers who have descended on Newark and Camden and New Orleans and Philadelphia and Chicago were simply saying, "It's okay. The parents and voters and taxpayers and citizens of these places don't need an elected school board. They don't need a vote. Wise folks from Out Of Town will look out for their best interests."

That would be bad enough. But the subtext is often worse-- These People can't be trusted to run their own schools or raise their own children, so for their own good, we're going to have to suspend democracy for them.

And so they get systems in which they have no say. Schools open and close based on business decisions, and local citizens have no say. Tax dollars are thrown left and right, past schools and into the pockets of private interests, and taxpayers have no say. Children are shipped back and forth across a city, ripping their neighborhoods apart, and the residents of those neighborhoods have no say.

Are there places where the schools are failing-- abysmally, utterly, systematically-- to serve the needs of their constituents? Absolutely. And that is a failure of democracy in and of itself (unless you're telling that some urban schools are poor and ineffective because that's what the residents of that community are demanding), a failure of elected officials to respond to the needs of their constituents. But you cannot tell me that the solution for too little democracy or ineffectively implemented democracy is to simply do away with democracy.

We don't suspend democracy or local control often in this country because it is foundational to who we are. In fact, in times like the civil rights era, we have suspended "local control" because it was not really local control at all, but an anti-democratic attempt to silence members of a community.

So how can buy the idea that among the legitimate reasons to suspend local control, to rip away an entire community's democratic power to run their own schools as a backbone of their own community, is to get better test scores on a single narrowly focused standardized test? How did we end up handing so much power to people who not only don't believe that democracy is a fundamental value, but that democracy is a problem to be stamped out?

The defenders of the NOLA privatization experiment are not just arguing for better test scores, but are arguing that stamping out local voices and stifling democratic process are a great thing for the mostly-not-white, mostly-not-wealthy people of New Orleans. I can believe that some really believe that getting those test scores up is just that important, but as long as this is the United States, they are absolutely wrong.


  1. I 99% agree with you, and I believe strongly that our #1 reason for funding public education is prep for democracy, so it is ironic that those seeking to reform education work so hard to undermine the democratic governance of public schools. That said, there are (quite limited) times when a different government entity needs to step in. See, e.g., the anti-public education actions of the duly elected school board in East Ramapo, NY. But I've yet to see a good argument for a solution that includes placing public education money in private hands with little to no oversight.

  2. I 100% agree with you. In East Ramapo there's no state takeover against local citizens' wishes, just a state monitor to make sure funds are distributed fairly, as board members were accused by local citizens of misconduct, funneling inordinate funds to private schools, to the detriment of public schools.


    Jesse Ruiz, a current appointee to Chicago's unelected School Board, appeared at a forum held at the City Club of Chicago last February 2, 2015. It was a discussion about whether Chicago should keep its appointed (by the mayor) school board, or return to the old system of having citizens elect a board. The return to an elected board was overwhelmingly endorsed by Chicago's citizens in a non-binding vote last spring.

    In defending the unelected Chicago School Board upon which he sits, Jesse opened his mouth and made some "WTF-did-he-just-say?!" statements that were, thankfully, captured for posterity on video.

    NOTE: Earlier this summer, Jesse was also briefly the interim Chicago Schools CEO (not Superintendent... schools are a business in Chi-town) when the then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had to resign after prosecutors announced an investigation of her conflict-of-interests in spearheading a multi-million-dollar contract to a principals' training organization that she had ties to... but that's another story.

    Anyway, back to Jesse Ruiz, who, years ago, was also appointed to the Illinois' State Board of Ed, where he served for several years. At Ruiz' aforementioned appearance at a City Club of Chicago forum, Jesse started talking about how hundreds of school districts in Illinois had elected boards, and while serving on the Illinois board, he got along well with the members of those elected boards---he calls them his "colleagues".

    However, Ruiz nevertheless argues that Chicago must not have an elected school board, and made the following justification: (here's the video.. go to about 06:58 - 07:35)
    (06:59 - 07:35)
    JESSE RUIZ, Chicago Board of Ed.: "But for our city, I honestly do believe that it would be best left as it is, as an appointed school board, because it's an incredibly complicated and diverse district. There are very difficult decisions to be made, and sometimes they're not very popular decisions, and I would have to---I WOULD HATE to have to worry about my next election when making a vote.

    "I NEVER worry about that. I've NEVER HAD TO worry about that, or worry about WHO, WHO... uhhh... I am pleasing, or un-pleasing with my vote. All I worry about is what's best for the students in the city of Chicago. And so therefore, that's the system that I prefer."

    I don't know about you, Peter, but Jesse's really "un-pleasing" me with his justification for the 20-years-and-counting cancellation of popular democracy in the governance of Chicago's public schools, and where the corporate reformers and profiteers that bankrolled Rahm Emanuel's election now drive the policy... and not Chicago's citizens.

    How about you, Peter? Are you as "un-pleased" with Board Member Ruiz's comments as I?



    You can extrapolate this Chicago scenario to other situations... say... that of Hitler after he passed the 1933 "Enabling Act" that dissolved the Weimar Republic and its democracy in early 1930's Germany. I can just see Adolph sitting around with Goering and Goebbels shooting the breeze.

    HITLER: "But for the Reich, I honestly do believe that it would be best left as it is, subject to my dictates as Fuehrer. There are very difficult decisions to be made, and sometimes they're not very popular decisions, and I would have to---I WOULD HATE to have to worry about my next election when making a vote.

    "I NEVER worry about that. I've NEVER HAD TO worry about that, or worry about WHO, WHO... uhhh... I am pleasing, or un-pleasing with my vote. All I worry about is what's best for the citizens of the Third Reich. And so that's the system that I prefer."

    Yeah, I BET you do, Adolph.

    You could write the same parody for Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, or whatever undemocratic dictator you choose.

    But seriously, that's how democracy works. When some policy implementation is unpopular and "un-pleasing" with the citizen-taxpayers---no matter how much Board Member Ruiz, or any elected official is desirous of such implementation---that fear of being removed from office in an upcoming election is a necessary check-and-balance, one that reins in Ruiz and his fellow Board members from doing something that the voters---his ultimate "bosses" in a democracy---do not want to happen. The will of the people will prevail in this scenario... theoretically, at least.

    This was particularly relevant when Ruiz and his unelected Board closed 50 traditional public schools---with them replaced by privately-run charters---despite overwhelming polling saying that the tax-paying citizens of Chicago would be very "un-pleased" by this. (I know, I'm beating the "un-pleased" joke to death... that was the last one.)

    At the very least, these schools being closed had elected Local Schoolsite Councils (LSC's) made up of parents and community members, with albeit minimal decision-making power. The privately-managed charters that are currently in the process of replacing them, however, have no such LSC's, and thus, the parents have ZERO input. Parents are barred from the meetings of that board, which are held in secret, and chaired by businessmen who have ZERO experience as teachers and/or administrators.

    MORE ON..."Board Member Ruiz" in my next post.

  5. This Hispanic Jimmy Fallon-look-alike Jesse Ruiz is not the pleasant, engaging, and mild mannered politico that he presents himself as in the ABOVE video. Again, here's the link:

    To contrast this, see how Ruiz behaves when the cameras are off, according an account of activist principal Tony LaRiviere in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
    LaRiviere is a proponent of having and elected school board, and who backed Chuy Garcia, Emanuel's opponent and Ruiz' boss in the recent election.

    BELOW is LaRiviere's first-hand account. In the story that follows, LaRiviere put his job on the line, and boldly confronted Ruiz at principals' budget meeting, days before Ruiz was replaced as Interim CEO of CPS. LaRiviere took Ruiz to task about how Ruiz and his unelected board diverted $2 billion dollars of school funds to organizations who had backed Mayor Rahm Emanuel's successful re-election bid.

    (NOTE: Years ago, Mayor Emanuel had appointed Ruiz to the Board, and also appointed Ruize to briefly lead the board as its interim CEO earlier this summer.)

    In a real mano-a-mano confrontation, Ruiz clumsily attempted to refute LaRiviere's contentions, but eventually became flustered and gave up, calling Ruiz a "loud-mouthed principal."

    All very entertaining stuff... read on...

    This is an enlightening look into how zero free speech and non-democracy reigns with an unelected school board.
    Outspoken Principal Tony LaRaviere goes at Chicago Public Schools
    CEO Jesse Ruiz one-on-one: (days before Ruiz was replaced)

    Just before this excerpt begins, LaRiviere has been asking to have to floor, and speak at the principals' budget meeting, when...

    At that point, interim CEO Jesse Ruiz stood up, projected his voice, and with a somewhat stern and agitated tone stated, “You can get your question addressed outside in the hall with me.”

    Once again, a CPS official was stating, “Everyone will hear us, but no one will hear you, and no one will hear our response to you.”

    His standing up was a bold move, seemingly intended to either intimidate me, or to make other principals think twice about seconding my question.

    “My question needs to be addressed right here with the principals in this room,” I replied.

    “YOU are disrupting this meeting,” he said.

    “And YOU are insulting the intelligence of everyone in this meeting,” I countered.

    At that point, my network chief asked that I accept the CEO’s offer to step outside the meeting; so I did. As I left I told principals, “If anyone else is interested in his answer to the question, we’ll be right outside the door.”


    TONY LARIVIERE: (continued)

    No principal took me up on my offer. When we got into the hallway, we began to engage in what I can only describe as a testosterone-driven, back-and-forth aimed at little else except besting the other’s last comment.

    I’m sure there is quite a bit I’ve left out due to the limitations of my own memory, but here is—to the best of that memory—how it went once we left the auditorium.

    LARIVIERE: "That political propaganda had no place in a principal’s budget meeting."

    RUIZ: "If you’re so unhappy with CPS, why do YOU stay in it?"

    LARIVIERE: "To save it from people like YOU."

    RUIZ: [I can’t remember his exact words, but it had something to do with the budget]

    LARIVIERE: "Your mayor has diverted over $2 billion tax payer dollars to his campaign contributors."

    RUIZ: "He’s YOUR mayor, too."

    At this point Ruiz launched into an extended critique of my involvement in the Chuy Garcia campaign.

    (NOTE: Garcia was Mayor Emanuel's opponent, who made history by being the first non-machine candidate to force the machine incumbent into a run-off. Garcia backs keeping traditional public schools---not closing them and replacing them with charters, and also backs going back to an elected school board. JACK)

    LARIVIERE: "Please. Don’t lecture me on the ethics of principals being involved in election campaigns, when you work for a mayor who repeatedly pulled CPS principals out of their buildings during work hours to stand on stage with him at his campaign events. Let’s get back to the point. Your mayor diverted $2 billion taxpayer dollars to his campaign contributors (both Daley and Emanuel)."

    RUIZ: "And what is your source for that?"

    LARIVIERE: "Forbes Magazine."

    RUIZ: "Well, I’m sure they didn’t cite any evidence."

    LARIVIERE: "They cited about a decade of receipts from City Hall’s vendor checkbook."

    RUIZ: "You’re nothing but a loud-mouthed principal!"

    “Did the CEO of CPS just resort to name-calling?” I thought. The exchange had already sunk low enough. I wasn’t about to sink to name-calling—especially with my boss. I will tell my boss a truth he doesn’t want to hear, and raise questions he doesn’t want to answer, but I’m not calling him names.

    It was after the “loud-mouthed principal” comment that I decided to end the exchange.

    LARIVIERE: It’s obvious I’m not going to get my question answered here so I’m going back in to listen to rest of this nonsense propaganda.

    RUIZ: If you think it’s nonsense, why would you sit through it. I would not sit through nonsense.

    LARIVIERE: That’s because you’re too busy dishing it out.

    [I walked away and returned to the auditorium]

    We had left the auditorium because Ruiz invited me into the hallway with the understanding that he would address a question I posed about CPS’s reckless spending. However, the exchange we had outside that room quickly degenerated into a chest pounding stand-off, much of which had nothing to do with my question about CPS spending.

    I had allowed him to lure me into a verbal cockfight. The CEO of Chicago Pubic Schools and one of its most successful principals were going toe-to-toe like two overstimulated teenaged jocks—in public. It was certainly not my proudest moment, and I doubt it made Ruiz’s top ten list.

  7. Peter, this "City Club of Chicago Forum" on Elected-vs.-Appointed-School-Boards could be subject of an article in its own right, as in watching it, there's so much there to consider. (Think about it.)

    Later on at this forum, Ruiz claims that keeping the board appointed also keeps forces from "inserting more politics" into Board operations, and prevents union-backed candidates from having influence on contracts. Jesse insists, "I don't have to raise a dime from anybody. I don't have to worry about my next campaign..." to get elected or re-elected.

    Jitu Brown, a community activist, and proponent of having an elected school board, counters this, referencing the cushy no-bid contracts, where school buildings / annual school budgets are turned over to the Charter Management Organizations like the "Academy for Urban School Leadership" (AUSL), while former/future AUSL officials are serving on the board.

    Can you say "conflict of interest"?

    Jitu also references the community's grassroots fight to keep open Dyett High School, the only remaining traditional (non-charter) public high school ("open-enrollment") in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
    ( 30:24 - 31:42 )
    ( 30:24 - 31:42 )
    JITI BROWN: "I got a question for you, though, Jesse."

    JESSE RUIZ: "Yes?"

    JITI BROWN: "How could it be any more 'POLITICAL' than it is RIGHT NOW?? I mean HONESTLY! You have the Chief Operations Officer for Chicago Public Schools who's the former CEO of 'The Academy of Urban School Leadership.' (AUSL charter chain)

    "You have the Board President of the Chicago Board of Education, who is the former Board President of 'The Academy of Urban School Leadership' . They (AUSL) get schools (turned over to them) with no-bid contracts. They (AUSL) just---and despite the fact that they (AUSL) have (failed initially and) had to turn around THEIR OWN turn-arounds at two high schools TWICE! They (AUSL) have had to restart Phillips (High School) TWICE! They (AUSL) have had to restart Orr (High School) TWICE! How could it be more... (political)'?

    "Right now, right now, the mayor of Chicago... was... this morning was at (Chater School organization) LITTLE BLACK PEARL, which is a politically-connected arts organization when we have been fighting like wet cats for (to save) Dyett High School (as a traditional non-charter school), in Bronzeville, saying that we don't want to loser our last open-enrollment neighborhood high school, and the mayor is getting a political endorsement at (from) an (privately-run charter) organization that is submitting an application for (taking over) Dyett (High School)???!!!

    "Do you ACTUALLY THINK that we that this is FAIR??!!

    "How could it possibly be MORE 'political'?

    "You just had a (CPS) board member (Deborah Quazzo, was later forced to resign over this) who was caught taking profits, her company taking profits. So how can it be more 'POLITICAL' than it is right now???!! I mean, HONESTLY!!"



    Jesse doesn't address a single one of the facts or points that Brown makes... presumably conceding them.

    Instead, Jesse then counters Brown by saying that he doesn't want CPS to be like LAUSD, where it is expensive to run a board that manages lots of schools, and has a messy, expensive election process, with money outside the city coming in from New York billionaires. (Hey, I don't like that either.)

    JESSE RUIZ: "I'd rather not see that happen for my city and our schools."

    (Jesse, a messy democracy is better than no democracy, which is what you have in Chicago.)

    Jesse Ruiz makes the stupid argument that an electoral system "costs millions" of dollars that "could be used to educate kids." You could say the same exact thing about the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Reps, State Senates, State Assemblies... and multi-million-dollar elections for who would serve on them.

    "Hey, think of the money that we could save if the President / Governor appointed the members of the Senate, or the House of Reps, or the State Senate, or the State Assemblies. We could then use that money saved to go towards public works that benefit citizens."

    Asinine!!! Boy that argument really "un-pleases" me!!! (O.K., that was the last "un-pleases" joke)

    Brown, no-dummy-he, fires back a Ruiz.

    While noting the messiness of democracy, with unions and special interests participating, Brown cites LAUSD's accomplishments:
    (32:20 - 32-45)
    (32:20 - 32-45)
    JITU BROWN: "But what you CAN say is that Los Angeles (LAUSD's school board) has passed some of the most progressive (school board) legislation in this country. Their 'A-thru-G' legislation that says that where that child goes to school, they have to have curriculum that prepares them for college.... They (LAUSD officials) have it, and are addressing it (college requirements). But (in Chicago), we (instead) are addressing it by closing schools, and by displacing families."

  9. I hope ed. resistance actively arouses the sleeping giant (students) to make the most of the what i think is the best teachable moment for democracy in my lifetime. Newark Student Unions popping up everywhere would help end this nightmare, while serving as the best lesson in active citizenship imaginable.