“We’ve Got to Take This State to School”: A Report from the Front Lines in the Battle to Save Public Education


Nassau Community College AAUP Advocacy Chapter

April 18, 2016

This past weekend, I traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to attend the third annual convention of the Network for Public Education (NPE). Headed up by Diane Ravitch, the fierce historian of public education at NYU and tenacious public intellectual and blogger (her blog averages over 20 million readers!), the NPE is waging a nation-wide war against the billionaires and their bought and paid for governors and state legislators who are systematically and steadfastly closing public schools, firing teachers, and replacing them with charter schools staffed by low-paid, inexperienced non-union teachers or using vouchers to send children to private schools of the parents’ choice, where in a state like Louisiana, teachers without college degrees but iron-clad moral qualifications might teach children that the earth was created 10,000 years ago and that humans romped with stegosauruses in the Garden of Eden (located, I believe, on land currently occupied by a Waffle House in Baton Rouge).

NPE selected Raleigh for its 2016 convention for strategic reasons: since a right-wing takeover of state government in 2012, North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory and the state legislature, have acted quickly to turn a state which once ranked among the best in the nation in education into a conservative dystopia: from K-12 to its colleges and universities the state has been engaged in kind of scorched-earth defunding frenzy. At the public school level, the state’s goal is to eliminate public schools and qualified teachers, while opening the state to the voracious forces of privatization (thousands of teacher were laid off, programs cut, charter schools blossomed, etc.). At the post-secondary level, half a billion dollars was cut from higher ed, while strict limitations were imposed on financial aid, affecting mostly low-income North Carolinians. Meanwhile, in March, Republicans institutionalized hate, passing HB2, the so-called bathroom bill, that specifically discriminates against the LGBT community (it also sneaks in a provision prohibiting local municipalities from raising the minimum wage).

So, flying from JFK to Raleigh, I felt a bit akin to a West Berliner crossing over into East Berlin before the collapse of the Wall to visit fellow countrymen/women and observing the human wreckage wreaked by an anti-democratic ideology. So, like the West Berliner, I met one damaged soul after another who had descended on Raleigh (like souls bearing witness in Hell) from the scattered outposts of educational dystopias created by power-addled, Republican legislators and governors. There was Jeff, a transplant from Nebraska who now teaches high school history in Raleigh, who told me qualified teachers are fleeing his state and that he wished he had never come. There was a special ed teacher from Cleveland who cried while telling me about special needs students suffering severe anxiety from the inhumane avalanche of testing ushered in by programs like Race to the Top and about how her own autistic daughter hated school because of tests. There was a teacher from Louisville, Kentucky who said teachers were fired or suspended if they uttered a single word critical of testing. (The testing frenzy is a way to break unions, fire teachers, shut down public schools because they are failing, and replace them with charters). These were the despairing accounts of teachers, many of whom were also parents.

Their feelings were complex: Rage against politicians for taking the joy and discovery out of education and replacing it with a grim testing culture of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. (An entire generation of children is learning to hate education.) Rage against testing companies like Pearson designing tests lots of kids will fail. Despair at the sight of a beautiful institution of democracy, public education, being razed like the once glorious Penn Station to make way for “efficient” market-friendly systems. But alongside the fear and despair, I saw hope and a kind of revolutionary determination to re-claim, resurrect, and rebuild public education. These educators—these teachers and parents—came to Raleigh with a mission.

That mission to resurrect public education founds its spiritual and moral expression most profoundly in Saturday’s keynote address, a sermon-like, one-hour oration by the Rev. William Barber. Delivered in a voice that rolled at moments like distant thunder or lingered with a luxuriant drawl over a syllable like a blues guitarist bending a long note (Emmet Till, murdered in response to Brown vs. Board of Education, was “Tiiiiiill”), Rev. Barber’s talk hit two powerful themes, the centrality of public education to democracy and race. Linking education, democracy, and race, Rev. Barber then asked the keynote’s most important question: “What hinders our commitment to public education”? (Go to 14:50 or so in the video transcript) Barber’s answer to this question speaks to the crisis both at the K-12 and higher ed levels, where we at Nassau Community College and at colleges and universities all over the nation practice our profession. What hinders our commitment to public education isn’t money, as administrators or politicians would immediately argue. What hinders our commitment to public education isn’t money, as Rev. Barber argues with exquisite historical exactitude; no, what hinders our commitment to public education is hatred, the hatred on the part of some of public education for all people. Racism.

Listening to the Rev. Dr. Barber’s clear diagnosis of the cancer of racism destroying the body of public education, I felt less like an interloper, a professor at a gathering public school teachers, and more like a fellow citizen and educator (I am not a parent like so many of those present were), facing an enemy plaguing education at all levels, all parts of the country, from New Orleans where—adding civic annihilation to natural disaster–public education was destroyed after the city was washed away, to Chicago and Philadelphia where schools have been shuttered like businesses during the Great Depression, and all the way to Garden City, NY where cuts to our budget (like those at institutions of higher education all across America) have corresponded to the changing complexion of the majority of our students: more students of color means less money for higher education. Racism.

Rev. Barber’s keynote ebbed and flowed, and sprinkled and thundered, moving gracefully or raucously or gently as meaning required. But his momentum kept building surreptitiously as the hour wore on, till the end when the force of his words burst through the wall of decorum he had managed to sustain to that point. His peroration linked all his themes: he thunderously repeated this sentence five or six times: “We’ve got to take this state to school!” Leaving the ballroom of the Raleigh Convention Center, I thought Barber’s final words, still echoing in my mind, blended several rhetorical styles: they were denunciation, they were exclamation and command, and finally they were prophecy. There were foretelling what we are in fact witnessing all around the nation in this election year: the ugly, ugly implosion of the party of Trump and Cruz, the purposeful construction of what are essentially failed states in Wisconsin, Kansas, Florida, Michigan, Maine, Florida, and others, conservative dystopias whose utter hatred of government and all things public will doom them to eventual failure, the quiet and not so quiet judicial victories (Friedman v California Teachers Assoc., Vergara v California, etc.) that affirm teachers and unions, the blossoming of Black Lives Matter into an important progressive political force, and here at home, at NCC, we may be seeing, we hope, the recognition of what has always been eminently clear. The faculty and staff are not the problem. Middle States affirmed this fact.

At one point in his talk, Rev. Barber said we need to have some grownup talk about race. I think he’s right. And I think this grownup talk about race should be focused on race and money. Because when you get right down to it when politicians say we must practice fiscal responsibility or when politicians glorify fiscal conservatism and market principles, what they are really saying is they hate the idea of opportunity for all people. They hate the idea of education for all people. Education, good education, and opportunity, so this belief system goes, should be the privilege of the few, and those few are not people of color. Echoing Barber, we’ve got to take our state (New York) to school, we’ve got (ironically) to take SUNY to school, and, much closer to home, we’ve got to take our very own Board of Trustees to school.


Tim Strode, Ph.D.
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee

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