New York Times, Sunday, November 28, 2010

November 29, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Interesting article – your thoughts?

 

November 27, 2010 A’s for Good Behavior By PEG TYRE

A few years ago, teachers at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minn., might have said that their top students were easy to identify: they completed their homework and handed it in on time; were rarely tardy; sat in the front of the class; wrote legibly; and jumped at the chance to do extra-credit assignments. But after poring over four years of data comparing semester grades with end-of-the-year test scores on state subject exams, the teachers at Ellis began to question whether they really knew who the smartest students were. About 10 percent of the students who earned A’s and B’s in school stumbled during end-of-the-year exams. By contrast, about 10 percent of students who scraped along with C’s, D’s and even F’s — students who turned in homework late, never raised their hands and generally seemed turned off by school — did better than their eager-to-please B+ classmates. Some of the discrepancy between grades and test scores could be explained by test anxiety — that some students have trouble showing what they know in a standardized, timed environment. And some teachers simply may have done a poor job teaching what the standardized exam tested. But Austin’s school superintendent, David Krenz, and the principal at Ellis, Katie Berglund, said the disconnect between semester grades and end-of-the-year exams was too large and persistent to be the result of such factors. “Over time, we began to realize that many teachers had been grading kids for compliance — not for mastering the course material,” Ms. Berglund said. “A portion of our A and B students were not the ones who were gaining the most knowledge but the ones who had learned to do school the best.” Last fall, over protests from parents of some of the above-average students, the eighth-grade math teachers at Ellis tried a new, standards-based grading system, and this fall the new system is being used by the entire middle school and in high school for ninth graders. As test scores fast become the single and most powerful measurement by which educational outcomes are being judged, more schools might find themselves engaged in what has become a pivotal debate: Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working? Or should good grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material? For Sandra Doebert, a superintendent who oversees a high school with 1,500 school students in Lemont, Ill., a middle-class suburb southwest of Chicago, the answer is clear. “In this age of data and with so much information available to us we can no longer confuse how students act with what they know.” She, too, is revamping the grading policy so that grades reflect subject mastery, not compliance. At the urging of President Obama, more high schools are making “college readiness” a goal. The percentage of students who attend college is rising; 67 percent of high school graduates now enroll in some sort of post-secondary school after graduation (up from 43 percent in 1973). But the reality is that many don’t succeed, in large part because they are not academically prepared. Federal data shows that fewer than 60 percent of students graduate from four-year colleges in six years. Among students at a community college, only one in three earns a degree. Recently released data from ACT shows that only 24 percent of high school seniors knew enough in four subjects — math, reading, science and English — to do college-level work. There are no national statistics about the number of schools shifting to standards-based grading. But the idea has been around for a while, and Ken O’Connor, a former Canadian high school teacher turned grading consultant, said that more schools have been adopting the approach. It’s an inevitable extension, he says, of standards-based learning. “Schools are finally realizing if you don’t have standards-based grading you really do not have a standards-based education,” said Mr. O’Connor, author of “A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades.” “We are focused not on exposure to content and activities for their own sake but on outputs” — what students can show they’ve learned. When parents of students at Ellis Middle School look over their children’s report cards, they will find a so-called “knowledge grade,” which will be calculated by averaging the scores on end-of-unit tests. (Those tests can be retaken any time during the semester so long as a student has completed all homework; remedial classes that re-teach skills will be offered all year.) Homework is now considered practice for tests. Assignments that are half done, handed in late or missing all together will be noted, but will not hurt a student’s grade. Nor will showing up late for class, forgetting to bring your pencil, failing to raise your hand before shouting out an answer or forgetting to bring in a permission slip for the class trip — infractions that had previously caused Ellis students’ grades to suffer. (In addition to an academic grade, the 950 students at the school will get a separate “life skills” grade for each class that reflects their work habits and other, more subjective, measures like attitude, effort and citizenship. ) Some parents welcome the change. Nitaya Jandragholica says her son Clyde, an eighth grader at Ellis, finds the new grading plan more equitable. “He saw that teachers had favorites. Kids — even ones that were not that smart — could get good grades if the teacher likes them,” Ms. Jandragholica says. The principal, Ms. Berglund, says that some students’ grades have gone up and some have gone down but that she’s confident — and has the data to prove it — that their grades are more accurately reflecting their knowledge, “not whether or not they brought in a box of Kleenex for the classroom,” a factor that had influenced grades at Ellis in the past. After a high-performing public school district in Potsdam, N.Y., began changing its grading formula, 175 parents and community members — many of them professors from local universities — signed a petition in protest. Carolyn Stone, an adjunct professor of literacy at SUNY Potsdam and a mother of a Potsdam high school freshman, was one of the protesters. She says the new policy, which makes daily homework, even when it is handed in late, account for only 10 percent of the grade, encourages laziness. “Does the old system reward compliance? Yes,” she said. “Do those who fit in the box of school do better? Yes. But to revamp the policy in a way that could be of detriment to the kids who do well is not the answer.” In the real world, she points out, attitude counts. But Mr. Krenz, the superintendent in Austin, Minn., said that parents — as well as kids — would be the winners. Conversations between parents and teachers can now focus on what students need to learn, rather than classroom attitude or missing homework. “Before we started this, a teacher could complain to a parent that their child slumps in the back of the classroom and doesn’t bring a pencil,” he said. “Now the conversation is about the fact that the child doesn’t know how to calculate slope, and we can put our heads together — parents and teachers and administrator — to figure out how to help that child obtain that skill.” The superintendent in Potsdam, Patrick Brady, who has been rolling out a revamped grading system this fall in his 1,450-student district, said it would allow teachers to recognize academic strengths where they often are not discovered — among minority students, or students from poorer families, or boys — subgroups whose members may be unable or unwilling to fit in easily to the culture of school. “We are getting rid of grade fog,” Mr. Brady said. “We need to stop overlooking kids who can do the work and falsely inflate grades of kids who can’t but who look good. We think this will be good for everyone.”

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Analysis of the current situation in New York’s Public Schools

November 13, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
What has the Bloomberg / Klein regime brought to the hopes and dreams of educating iour children and what is there to expect from the Bloomberg / Black regime?
Published on Saturday, November 13, 2010 by In These Times

NYC School Reform, Bloomberg-Style: Taking Care of Business?

by Michelle Chen

The New York City school system may be short on textbooks and qualified teachers, but it does feature a big, shiny revolving door. Through this entryway, education moguls flow freely between the city’s gilded corporate enclaves and its pauperized classrooms.

To continue this tradition, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has tapped Cathleen Black, chair of Hearst Magazines, to succeed the outgoing Joel Klein as schools chancellor. The three boast similar corporate-media pedigrees. Bloomberg was a media magnate before his wealth catapulted him into a (legally precarious) three-term reign at Gracie Mansion. Klein was a business lawyer with no background in education when picked for the post.

The Klein-Bloomberg team (along with D.C. counterpart Michelle Rhee and Obama’s education chief Arne Duncan) garnered national headlines with its scorched-earth brand of reform, which dovetails neatly with the liberal elite save-our-schools crusade, fueled by free-market ideology and philanthropic dollars. Bloomberg and Klein pummeled schools with a slew of “entrepreneurial” top-down shake-ups that sought to shutter “failing” schools, seek “accountability” through testing, and inject new ideological blood into powerful principal positions.

Embattled union teachers bristled at these changes, seeing Bloomberg and Klein as out of touch with their day-to-day challenges. Moreover, advocates attacked the administration’s coddling of controversial, often overhyped charter schools as an effort to undermine and privatize public schools and constrain unions. But there was little recourse, as the system had few checks aside from a stacked panel that critics saw as little more than a rubber stamp for the Mayor.

Klein’s approach privileged corporate managerial prowess and downgrades the thankless work of teaching long division and iambic pantameter. Did it pay off? Today, the yawning racial gap in academic performance remains massive. Test scores Bloomberg once touted have been revised downward under a new assessment by the state, which has jolted many schools with a drop from previously distorted grades.

Now the city has hired a media executive to heal the school’s political, economic and ethnic fissures. Activists have already derided Black’s private-school background and what appears to be her unabashed cluelessness. She recently pleaded for “patience as I get up to speed on all of the issues facing K-through-12 education today.” Unfortunately, patience is one virtue New Yorkers do not possess in abundance when dealing with opaque school officials.

Yet in the wake of Klein’s reform blitzkrieg, students, teachers and parents are wary not to endorse rash change just for change’s sake. What’s missing from the reform equation isn’t momentum, it’s a community-wide deliberation on how to create an environment for meaningful learning and developing intellectual confidence.

Black will step into a battleground of school reform fraught with competing union and mayoral agendas, litigation over school closures, slashed budgets and brain-choking standardized tests. The actual experience of learning may well get lost once again in the din of partisan bickering.

To progressive-minded teachers, there’s no magic reform bullet, and that’s the delusion that got so many public schools into trouble. The solution starts with following the wisdom of responsible, and responsive, educators who know how a school functions: how to keep a kid’s attention for 45 minutes straight, how to defuse a playground fight, how to speak to parents about a boy’s lackluster report card, or fight for more resources when the supply cabinet goes empty again.

Similarly, engaging students in school governance gives youth a sense of ownership, and a stake in the success of their school. Finally, politicians must tamp down the messianic rhetoric and recognize that structural poverty, discrimination, and poor health care can impact academic life as well, and neither kids nor schools can be “fixed” in isolation of these environmental challenges.

Education scholar Diane Ravitch recently explored the charter school craze, represented in the film Waiting for Superman, as a microcosm of the flawed mentality driving many reform efforts, in the New York Review of Books:

If we are serious about improving our schools, we will take steps to improve our teacher force, as Finland and other nations have done. That would mean better screening to select the best candidates, higher salaries, better support and mentoring systems, and better working conditions….

We should also insist that only highly experienced teachers become principals (the “head teacher” in the school), not retired businessmen and military personnel. Every school should have a curriculum that includes a full range of studies, not just basic skills. And if we really are intent on school improvement, we must reduce the appalling rates of child poverty that impede success in school and in life.

There is a clash of ideas occurring in education right now between those who believe that public education is not only a fundamental right but a vital public service, akin to the public provision of police, fire protection, parks, and public libraries, and those who believe that the private sector is always superior to the public sector.

If we insist that teachers should master all aspects of their craft, and that school administrators should apply their grasp of pedagogy in their oversight, then why tap a publishing executive to manage all of the above?

That’s the question that Black’s tenure will have to address, answering not to the city’s chief executive but to everyday people, who embody the city’s greatest potential investment. After years of Bloomberg’s attempts to run urban schools like Fortune 500 companies, communities have no time to waste to reclaim their greatest public good from private hands.

I wanted to share …..the rest of the story…..

November 12, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

 

I found this interesting article by an educator named Rick Ayers

Published on Monday, September 27, 2010 by The Washington Post 

‘Waiting for Superman’: A Missed Opportunity for Education

What ‘Superman’ got wrong, point by point

by Rick Ayers

While the education film Waiting For Superman has moving profiles of students struggling to succeed under difficult circumstances, it puts forward a sometimes misleading and other times dishonest account of the roots of the problem and possible solutions.

The amped-up rhetoric of crisis and failure everywhere is being used to promote business-model reforms that are destabilizing even in successful schools and districts. A panel at NBC’s Education Nation Summit, taking place in New York today and tomorrow, was originally titled “Does Education Need a Katrina?” Such disgraceful rhetoric undermines reasonable debate.

Let’s examine these issues, one by one:

*Waiting for Superman says that lack of money is not the problem in education.
Yet the exclusive charter schools featured in the film receive large private subsidies. Two-thirds of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone funding comes from private sources, effectively making the charter school he runs in the zone a highly resourced private school. Promise Academy is in many ways an excellent school, but it is dishonest for the filmmakers to say nothing about the funds it took to create it and the extensive social supports including free medical care and counseling provided by the zone.

In New Jersey, where court decisions mandated similar programs, such as high quality pre-kindergarten classes and extended school days and social services in the poorest urban districts, achievement and graduation rates increased while gaps started to close. But public funding for those programs is now being cut and progress is being eroded. Money matters! Of course, money will not solve all problems (because the problems are more systemic than the resources of any given school) – but the off-handed rejection of a discussion of resources is misleading.

*Waiting for Superman implies that standardized testing is a reasonable way to assess student progress.
The debate of “how to raise test scores” strangles and distorts strong education. Most test score differences stubbornly continue to reflect parental income and neighborhood/zip codes, not what schools do. As opportunity, health and family wealth increase, so do test scores.
This is not the fault of schools but the inaccuracy, and the internal bias, in the tests themselves.

Moreover, the tests are too narrow (on only certain subjects with only certain measurement tools). When schools focus exclusively on boosting scores on standardized tests, they reduce teachers to test-prep clerks, ignore important subject areas and critical thinking skills, dumb down the curriculum and leave children less prepared for the future. We need much more authentic assessment to know if schools are doing well and to help them improve.

*Waiting for Superman ignores overall problems of poverty.
Schools must be made into sites of opportunity, not places for the rejection and failure of millions of African American, Chicano Latino, Native American, and immigrant students. But schools and teachers take the blame for huge social inequities in housing, health care, and income.

Income disparities between the richest and poorest in U.S.society have reached record levels between 1970 and today. Poor communities suffer extensive traumas and dislocations. Homelessness, the exploitation of immigrants, and the closing of community health and counseling clinics, are all factors that penetrate our school communities. Solutions that punish schools without addressing these conditions only increase the marginalization of poor children.

*Waiting for Superman says teachers’ unions are the problem.
Of course unions need to be improved – more transparent, more accountable, more democratic and participatory – but before teachers unionized, the disparity in pay between men and women was disgraceful and the arbitrary power of school boards to dismiss teachers or raise class size without any resistance was endemic.

Unions have historically played leading roles in improving public education, and most nations with strong public educational systems have strong teacher unions.

According to this piece in The Nation, “In the Finnish education system, much cited in the film as the best in the world, teachers are – gasp! – unionized and granted tenure, and families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and health care, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results in school.”

In fact, even student teachers have a union in Finland and, overall, nearly 90% of the Finnish labor force is unionized.

The demonization of unions ignores the real evidence.

*Waiting for Superman says teacher education is useless.
The movie touts the benefits of fast track and direct entry to teaching programs such as Teach for America, but the country with the highest achieving students, Finland, also has highly educated teachers.

A 1970 reform of Finland’s education system mandated that all teachers above the kindergarten level have at least a master’s degree. Today that country’s students have the highest math and science literacy, as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), of all the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries.

*Waiting for Superman decries tenure as a drag on teacher improvement.
Tenured teachers cannot be fired without due process and a good reason: they can’t be fired because the boss wants to hire his cousin, or because the teacher is gay (or black or…), or because they take an unpopular position on a public issue outside of school.

A recent survey found that most principals agreed that they had the authority to fire a teacher if they needed to take such action. It is interesting to note that when teachers are evaluated through a union-sanctioned peer process, more teachers are put into retraining programs and dismissed than through administration-only review programs. Overwhelmingly teachers want students to have outstanding and positive experiences in schools.

*Waiting for Superman says charter schools allow choice and better educational innovation.
Charters were first proposed by the teachers’ unions to allow committed parents and teachers to create schools that were free of administrative bureaucracy and open to experimentation and innovation, and some excellent charters have set examples. But thousands of hustlers and snake oil salesmen have also jumped in.

While teacher unions are vilified in the film, there is no mention of charter corruption or profiteering. A recent national study by CREDO, The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, concludes that only 17% of charter schools have better test scores than traditional public schools, 46% had gains that were no different than their public counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse.

While a better measure of school success is needed, even by their own measure, the project has not succeeded. A recent Mathematica Policy Research study came to similar conclusions. And the Education Report, “The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts, concludes, “On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.”

Some fantastic education is happening in charter schools, especially those initiated by communities and led by teachers and community members. But the use of charters as a battering ram for those who would outsource and privatize education in the name of “reform” is sheer political opportunism.

*Waiting for Superman glorifies lotteries for admission to highly selective and subsidized charter schools as evidence of the need for more of them.
If we understand education as a civil right, even a human right as defined by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, we know it can’t be distributed by a lottery.

We must guarantee all students access to high quality early education, highly effective teachers, college and work-preparatory curricula and equitable instructional resources like good school libraries and small classes. A right without a clear map of what that right protects is an empty statement.

It is not a sustainable public policy to allow more and more public school funding to be diverted to privately subsidized charters while public schools become the schools of last resort for children with the greatest educational needs. In Waiting for Superman, families are cruelly paraded in front of the cameras as they wait for an admission lottery in an auditorium where the winners’ names are pulled from a hat and read aloud, while the losing families trudge out in tears with cameras looming in their faces – in what amounts to family and child abuse.

*Waiting for Superman says competition is the best way to improve learning.
Too many people involved in education policy are dazzled by the idea of “market forces” improving schools. By setting up systems of competition, Social Darwinist struggles between students, between teachers, and between schools, these education policy wonks are distorting the educational process.

Teachers will be motivated to gather the most promising students, to hide curriculum strategies from peers, and to cheat; principals have already been caught cheating in a desperate attempt to boost test scores. And children are worn out in a sink-or-swim atmosphere that threatens them with dire life outcomes if they are not climbing to the top of the heap.

In spite of the many millions of dollars poured into expounding the theory of paying teachers for higher student test scores (sometimes mislabeled as ‘merit pay’), a new study by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives found that the use of merit pay for teachers in the Nashville school district produced no difference even according to their measure, test outcomes for students.

*Waiting for Superman says good teachers are key to successful education. We agree. But Waiting for Superman only contributes to the teacher-bashing culture which discourages talented college graduates from considering teaching and drives people out of the profession.

According to the Department of Education, the country will need 1.6 million new teachers in the next five years. Retention of talented teachers is one key. Good teaching is about making connections to students, about connecting what they learn to the world in which they live, and this only happens if teachers have history and roots in the communities where they teach.

But a recent report by the nonprofit National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future says that “approximately a third of America’s new teachers leave teaching sometime during their first three years of teaching; almost half leave during the first five years. In many cases, keeping our schools supplied with qualified teachers is comparable to trying to fill a bucket with a huge hole in the bottom.”

Check out the reasons teachers are being driven out in Katy Farber’s book, “Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus,” (Corwin Press).

*Waiting for Superman says “we’re not producing large numbers of scientists and doctors in this country anymore. . . This means we are not only less educated, but also less economically competitive.”

But Business Week (10/28/09) reported that “U.S. colleges and universities are graduating as many scientists and engineers as ever,” yet “the highest performing students are choosing careers in other fields.” In particular, the study found, “many of the top students have been lured to careers in finance and consulting.” It’s the market, and the disproportionately high salaries paid to finance specialists, that is misdirecting human resources, not schools.

*Waiting for Superman promotes a nutty theory of learning which claims that teaching is a matter of pouring information into children’s heads.
In one of its many little cartoon segments, the film purports to show how kids learn. The top of a child’s head is cut open and a jumble of factoids is poured in. Ouch! Oh, and then the evil teacher union and regulations stop this productive pouring project.

The film-makers betray a lack of understanding of how people actually learn, the active and engaged participation of students in the learning process. They ignore the social construction of knowledge, the difference between deep learning and rote memorization.

The movie would have done a service by showing us what excellent teaching looks like, and addressing the valuable role that teacher education plays in preparing educators to practice the kind of targeted teaching that reaches all students. It should have let teachers’ voices be heard.

*Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world.
The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark gray, with a little white girl sitting at a desk in the midst of it. The text: “The fate of our country won’t be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom.”

This is a common theme of the so-called reformers: We are at war with India and China and we have to out-math them and crush them so that we can remain rich and they can stay in the sweatshops.

But really, who declared this war? When did I as a teacher sign up as an officer in this war? And when did that 4th grade girl become a soldier in it? Instead of this new educational Cold War, perhaps we should be helping kids imagine a world of global cooperation, sustainable economies, and equity.

*Waiting for Superman says federal “Race to the Top” education funds are being focused to support students who are not being served in other ways.
According to a study by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and others, Race to the Top funds are benefiting affluent or well-to-do, white, and “abled” students. So the outcome of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top has been more funding for schools that are doing well and more discipline and narrow test-preparation for the poorest schools.

*Waiting for Superman suggests that teacher improvement is a matter of increased control and discipline over teachers.
Dan Brown, a teacher in the SEED charter school featured in the film, points out that successful schools involve teachers in strong collegial conversations. Teachers need to be accountable to a strong educational plan, without being terrorized. Good teachers, which is the vast majority of them, are seeking this kind of support from their leaders.

*Waiting for Superman proposes a reform “solution” that exploits the feminization of the field of teaching; it proposes that teachers just need a few good men with hedge funds (plus D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee with a broom) to come to the rescue.
Teaching has been historically devalued – teachers are less well compensated and have less control of their working conditions than other professionals – because of its associations with women.

For example, 97% of preschool and kindergarten teachers are women, and this is also the least well-compensated sector of teaching; in 2009, the lowest 10% earned $30,970 to $34,280; the top 10% earned $75,190 to $80,970. () By comparison the top 25 hedge fund managers took in $25 billion in 2009, enough to hire 658,000 new teachers.

Waiting for Superman could and should have been an inspiring call for improvement in education, a call we desperately need to mobilize behind.

That’s why it is so shocking that the message was hijacked by a narrow agenda that undermines strong education. It is stuck in a framework that says that reform and leadership means doing things, like firing a bunch of people (Rhee) or “turning around” schools (Education Secretary Arne Duncan) despite the fact that there’s no research to suggest that these would have worked, and there’s now evidence to show that they haven’t.

Reform must be guided by community empowerment and strong evidence, not by ideological warriors or romanticized images of leaders acting like they’re doing something, anything. Waiting for Superman has ignored deep historical and systemic problems in education such as segregation, property-tax based funding formulas, centralized textbook production, lack of local autonomy and shared governance, de-professionalization, inadequate special education supports, differential discipline patterns, and the list goes on and on.

People seeing Waiting for Superman should be mobilized to improve education. They just need to be willing to think outside of the narrow box that the film-makers have constructed to define what needs to be done.

© 2010 The Washinton Post

Rick Ayers is a former high school teacher, founder of Communication Arts and Sciences small school at Berkeley High School, and currently adjunct professor in teacher education at the University of San Francisco. He is the co-author, with his brother William Ayers, of the forthcoming “Teaching the Taboo” from Teachers College Press.

more information regarding the plight of African Americans as they attempt to navigate the school system successfully

November 12, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

 

I thought that this was worth sharing.  The Council of Great City Schools is like Mecca for Urban School Districts.  If they are recognizing a crisis…………

Report on Black Male Achievement Gap Spurs Calls for Action by Mara Gay

AOL News

(Nov. 11) — How many studies does it take to prove there is a crisis?

That is the question some educators are asking as a new study argues that the achievement gap between black male students and their white counterparts in American schools is far worse than anyone thought.

The study, published this week by the Council of the Great City Schools, found black males are twice as likely to drop out of high school than white males, and only 12 percent of them are proficient in reading by the fourth grade, compared with 38 percent of white males.

What’s even more disquieting, some educators say, is that this was already known.

“They haven’t said anything new,” James Comer, a child psychiatry professor at Yale University and founder of the Comer School Development Program in New Haven, Conn., told AOL News today.

Indeed, the report is only the latest in a long line of studies showing that the achievement gap between black and white students has widened in recent years, and that black males are being left behind in America’s schools at alarming rates. Frustrated after years of seeing similar data, many say it’s time to start applying lessons educators have already learned about how to close the gap.

“There are a number of schools where poor black boys are doing well,” Comer said. “That ought to raise the question of, ‘What goes on there that’s not going on in other places?'”

One well-known example is the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy in New York, a charter school that eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and white students among eighth-graders in math. Comer said plenty of public schools are succeeding as well.

Michael Holzman, a consultant with education research group the Schott Foundation, said educators already know that poor schools are to blame for the gap.

“If we look at schools that are predominately black, and we look at the achievement of white kids who are in those schools, we find that the white kids don’t do well either,” Holzman told National Public Radio.

But Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said the country needs a wake-up call about the scope of the crisis.

“We hope that this is a louder and more jolting wake-up call to the nation than this country is used to hearing,” he wrote in the study, as noted by The Washington Post. “The fact that previous calls have fallen on so many deaf ears is not encouraging, but we are convinced that we must ring the alarms one more time and play a larger role in setting this situation right.”

Sponsored Links Others said closing the gap will mean holding society — not just struggling students — accountable for success.

“There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten,” Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, told The New York Times, which first reported the study this week. “They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”

Comer agrees. He said the role of race and racism in education cannot be ignored. Poor black boys, he said, often suffer from low expectations from their teachers and from society.

“The sense of belonging in school is greater among white boys than black boys. The feeling, ‘I have a right to be here,’ and ‘I am valued in school’ — sometimes that’s just not there for black students,” he said.

I WANTED TO SHARE THIS

November 11, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

 I light of the recent election(s), I found / read this speech given by Bill Moyer’s and I thought it relevant enought to (re)post.  I hope it resonates with you

Published on Tuesday, November 2, 2010 by CommonDreams.org

Shades of Howard Zinn: It’s Okay If It’s Impossible

by Bill Moyers

The following remarks were prepared for delivery on October 29, 2010 as part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series at Boston University:

I was honored when you asked me to join in celebrating Howard Zinn’s life and legacy. I was also surprised. I am a journalist, not a historian. The difference between a journalist and an historian is that the historian knows the difference. George Bernard Shaw once complained that journalists are seemingly unable to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization. In fact, some epic history can start out as a minor incident. A young man named Paris ran off with a beautiful woman who was married to someone else, and the civilization of Troy began to unwind. A middle-aged black seamstress, riding in a Montgomery bus, had tired feet, and an ugly social order began to collapse. A night guard at an office complex in Washington D.C. found masking tape on a doorjamb, and the presidency of Richard Nixon began to unwind. What journalist, writing on deadline, could have imagined the walloping kick that Rosa Park’s tired feet would give to Jim Crow? What pundit could have fantasized that a third-rate burglary on a dark night could change the course of politics? The historian’s work is to help us disentangle the wreck of the Schwinn from cataclysm. Howard famously helped us see how big change can start with small acts.

We honor his memory. We honor him, for Howard championed grassroots social change and famously chronicled its story as played out over the course of our nation’s history. More, those stirring sagas have inspired and continue to inspire countless people to go out and make a difference. The last time we met, I told him that the stories in A People’s History of the United States remind me of the fellow who turned the corner just as a big fight broke out down the block. Rushing up to an onlooker he shouted, “Is this a private fight, or can anyone get in it?” For Howard, democracy was one big public fight and everyone should plunge into it. That’s the only way, he said, for everyday folks to get justice – by fighting for it.  

I have in my desk at home a copy of the commencement address Howard gave at Spelman College [1] in 2005. He was chairman of the history department there when he was fired in 1963 over his involvement in civil rights.  He had not been back for 43 years, and he seemed delighted to return for commencement. He spoke poignantly of his friendship with one of his former students, Alice Walker, the daughter of tenant farmers in Georgia who made her way to Spelman and went on to become the famous writer.  Howard delighted in quoting one of her first published poems that had touched his own life:

It is true
I’ve always loved
the daring ones
like the black young man
who tried crash
all barriers
at once,
wanted to swim
at a white/beach (in Alabama)
Nude.

That was Howard Zinn; he loved the daring ones, and was daring himself.

One month before his death he finished his last book, The Bomb [2]. Once again he was wrestling with his experience as a B-17 bombardier during World War II, especially his last mission in 1945 on a raid to take out German garrisons in the French town of Royan. For the first time the Eighth Air Force used napalm, which burst into liquid fire on the ground, killing hundreds of civilians. He wrote, “I remember distinctly seeing the bombs explode in the town, flaring like matches struck in the fog. I was completely unaware of the human chaos below.” Twenty years later he returned to Royan to study the effects of the raid and concluded there had been no military necessity for the bombing; everyone knew the war was almost over (it ended three weeks later) and this attack did nothing to affect the outcome. His grief over having been a cog in a deadly machine no doubt confirmed his belief in small acts of rebellion, which mean, as Howard writes in the final words of the book, “acting on what we feel and think, here, now, for human flesh and sense, against the abstractions of duty and obedience.”

His friend and long-time colleague Greg Ruggiero writes in the foreword that “Shifting historical focus from the wealthy and powerful to the ordinary person was perhaps his greatest act of rebellion and incitement.” It seems he never forget the experience of growing up in a working class neighborhood in New York. In that spirit, let’s begin with some everyday people.

***

When she heard the news, Connie Brasel cried like a baby.

For years she had worked at minimum-wage jobs, until 17 years ago, when she was hired by the Whirlpool refrigerator factory in Evansville, Indiana. She was making $18.44 an hour when Whirlpool announced earlier this year that it was closing the operation and moving it to Mexico. She wept. I’m sure many of the other eleven hundred workers who lost their jobs wept too; they had seen their ticket to the middle class snatched from their hands. The company defended its decision by claiming high costs, underused capacity, and the need to stay competitive. Those excuses didn’t console Connie Brasel. “I was becoming part of something bigger than me,” she told Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times. “Whirlpool was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

She was not only sad, she was mad. “They didn’t get world-class quality because they had the best managers. They got world-class quality because of the United States and because of their workers.”

Among those workers were Natalie Ford, her husband and her son; all three lost their jobs. “It’s devastating,” she told the Times. Her father had worked at Whirlpool before them. Now, “There aren’t any jobs here. How is this community going to survive?”

And what about the country? Between 2001 and 2008, about 40,000 US manufacturing plants closed. Six million factory jobs have disappeared over the past dozen years, representing one in three manufacturing jobs. Natalie Ford said to the Times what many of us are wondering: “I don’t know how without any good-paying jobs here in the United States people are going to pay for their health care, put their children through school.”

Now, if Connie Brasel and Natalie Ford lived in South Carolina, they might have been lucky enough to get a job with the new BMW plant that recently opened there and advertised that the company would hire one thousand workers. Among the applicants? According to the Washington Post; “a former manager of a major distribution center for Target; a consultant who oversaw construction projects in four western states; a supervisor at a plastics recycling firm. Some held college degrees and resumes in other fields where they made more money.” They will be paid $15 an hour – about half of what BMW workers earn in Germany.

In polite circles, among our political and financial classes, this is known as “the free market at work.” No, it’s “wage repression,” and it’s been happening in our country since around 1980. I must invoke some statistics here, knowing that statistics can glaze the eyes; but if indeed it’s the mark of a truly educated person to be deeply moved by statistics, as I once read, surely this truly educated audience will be moved by the recent analysis of tax data by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. They found that from 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of 10 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefited. The line flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans.  Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.

That’s wage repression.

Another story in the Times caught my eye a few weeks after the one about Connie Brasel and Natalie Ford.  The headline read: “Industries Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts.” Nelson Schwartz reported that despite falling motorcycle sales, Harley-Davidson profits are soaring – with a second quarter profit of $71 million, more than triple what it earned the previous year. Yet Harley-Davidson has announced plans to cut fourteen hundred to sixteen hundred more jobs by the end of next year; this on top of the 2000 jobs cut last year.

The story note: “This seeming contradiction – falling sales and rising profits – is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more buoyant than in households, where pessimism runs deep and unemployment shows few signs of easing.” There you see the two Americas.  A buoyant Wall Street; a doleful Main Street. The Connie Brasels and Natalie Fords – left to sink or swim on their own. There were no bailouts for them.

Meanwhile, Matt Krantz reports in USA TODAY that “Cash is gushing into company’s coffers as they report what’s shaping up to be a third-consecutive quarter of sharp earning increases. But instead of spending on the typical things, such as expanding and hiring people, companies are mostly pocketing the money or stuffing it under their mattresses.” And what are their plans for this money? Again, the Washington Post:

… Sitting on these unprecedented levels of cash, U.S. companies are buying back their own stock in droves. So far this year, firms have announced they will purchase $273 billion of their own shares, more than five times as much compared with this time last year… But the rise in buybacks signals that many companies are still hesitant [3] to spend their cash on the job-generating activities that could produce economic growth.

That’s how financial capitalism works today: Conserving cash rather than bolstering hiring and production; investing in their own shares to prop up their share prices and make their stock more attractive to Wall Street. To hell with everyone else.

Hear the chief economist at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, Ethan Harris, who told the Times: “There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy. Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.”

Or the chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York, Neal Soss. As companies have wrung more savings out of their work forces, causing wages and salaries barely to budge from recession lows, “profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.”

Just this morning the New York Times reports that the private equity business is roaring back: “While it remains difficult to get a mortgage to buy a home or to get a loan to fund a small business, yield-starved investors are creating a robust market for corporate bonds and loans.”

If this were a functioning democracy, our financial institutions would be helping everyday Americans and businesses get the mortgages and loans – the capital – they need to keep going; they’re not, even as the financiers are reaping robust awards.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But he’s run off with all the toys.

Late in August I clipped another story from the Wall Street Journal. Above an op-ed piece by Robert Frank the headline asked: “Do the Rich Need the Rest of America?” The author didn’t seem ambivalent about the answer. He wrote that as stocks have boomed, “the wealthy bounced back. And while the Main Street economy” [where the Connie Brasels and Natalie Fords and most Americans live] “was wracked by high unemployment and the real-estate crash, the wealthy – whose financial fates were more tied to capital markets than jobs and houses – picked themselves up, brushed themselves off, and started buying luxury goods again.”

Citing the work of Michael Lind, at the Economic Growth Program of the New American Foundation, the article went on to describe how the super-rich earn their fortunes with overseas labor, selling to overseas consumers and managing financial transactions that have little to do with the rest of America, “while relying entirely or almost entirely on immigrant servants at one of several homes around the country.”

Right at that point I remembered another story that I had filed away three years ago, also from the Wall Street Journal. The reporter Ianthe Jeanne Dugan described how the private equity firm Blackstone Group swooped down on a travel reservation company in Colorado, bought it, laid off 841 employees, and recouped its entire investment in just seven months, one of the quickest returns on capital ever for such a deal. Blackstone made a killing while those workers were left to sift through the debris. They sold their homes, took part-time jobs making sandwiches and coffee, and lost their health insurance.

That fall, Blackstone’s chief executive, Stephen Schwarzman, reportedly worth over $5 billion, rented a luxurious resort in Jamaica to celebrate the marriage of his son. According to the Guardian News, the Montego Bay facility alone cost $50,000, plus thousands more to sleep 130 guests. There were drinks on the beach, dancers and a steel band, marshmallows around the fire, and then, the following day, an opulent wedding banquet with champagne and a jazz band and fireworks display that alone cost $12,500. Earlier in the year Schwarzman had rented out the Park Avenue Armory in New York (near his 35-room apartment) to celebrate his 60th birthday at a cost of $3 million. So? It’s his money, isn’t it? Yes, but consider this: The stratospheric income of private-equity partners is taxed at only 15 percent – less than the rate paid, say, by a middle class family. When Congress considered raising the rate on their Midas-like compensation, the financial titans flooded Washington with armed mercenaries – armed, that is, with hard, cold cash — and brought the “debate” to an end faster than it had taken Schwarzman to fire 841 workers. The financial class had won another round in the exploitation of working people who, if they are lucky enough to have jobs, are paying a higher tax rate than the super-rich.

So the answer to the question: “Do the Rich Need the Rest of America?” is as stark as it is ominous: Many don’t. As they form their own financial culture increasingly separated from the fate of everyone else, it is hardly surprising, Frank and Lind concluded, ” that so many of them should be so hostile to paying taxes to support the infrastructure and the social programs that help the majority of the American people.”

You would think the rich might care, if not from empathy, then from reading history. Ultimately gross inequality can be fatal to civilization. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [4], the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond writes about how governing elites throughout history isolate and delude themselves until it is too late. He reminds us that the change people inflict on their environment is one of the main factors in the decline of earlier societies. For example: the Mayan natives on the Yucatan peninsula who suffered as their forest disappeared, their soil eroded, and their water supply deteriorated. Chronic warfare further exhausted dwindling resources.  Although Mayan kings could see their forests vanishing and their hills eroding, they were able to insulate themselves from the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well-fed while everyone else was slowly starving. Realizing too late that they could not reverse their deteriorating environment, they became casualties of their own privilege. Any society contains a built-in blueprint for failure, Diamond warns, if elites insulate themselves from the consequences of their decisions, separated from the common life of the country.

Yet the isolation continues – and is celebrated.  When Howard came down to New York last December for what would be my last interview with him, I showed him this document published in the spring of 2005 by the Wall Street giant Citigroup, setting forth an “Equity Strategy” under the title (I’m not making this up) “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer [5] (pdf).”

Now, most people know what plutocracy is: the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an American word and wasn’t meant to become an American phenomenon – some of our founders deplored what they called “the veneration of wealth.” But plutocracy is here, and a pumped up Citigroup even boasted of coining a variation on the word- “plutonomy”, which describes an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer and that government helps them do it.  Five years ago Citigroup decided the time had come to “bang the drum on plutonomy.”

And bang they did. Here are some excerpts from the document “Revisiting Plutonomy;”

“Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper… [and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years.”    

“…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the United States – the plutonomists in our parlance – have benefited disproportionately from the recent productivity surged in the US… [and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor.”

“… [and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. Because the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.”

I’ll repeat that: “The dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.” That was the case before the Great Collapse of 2008, and it’s the case today, two years after the catastrophe. But the plutonomists are doing just fine. Even better in some cases, thanks to our bailout of the big banks.

As for the rest of the country: Listen to this summary in The Economist – no Marxist journal — of a study by Pew Research:

More than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have canceled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have moved back in with their parents. Fewer than half of all adults expect their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and more than a quarter say it will be lower. For many Americans the great recession has been the sharpest trauma since The Second World War, wiping out jobs, wealth and hope itself.

Let that sink in:  For millions of garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a paucity of hope. Time for a confession. The legendary correspondent Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here is mine: Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction block, subject to the highest bidder.

Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. The name for what’s happening to our political system is corruption – a deep, systemic corruption.  I urge you to seek out the recent edition of Harper’s Magazine. The former editor Roger D. Hodge brilliantly dissects how democracy has gone on sale in America [6].  Ideally, he writes, our ballots purport to be expressions of political will, which we hope and pray will be translated into legislative and executive action by our pretended representatives. But voting is the beginning of civil virtue, not its end, and the focus of real power is elsewhere. Voters still “matter” of course, but only as raw material to be shaped by the actual form of political influence – money.

The article is excerpted from Hodge’s new book, The Mendacity of Hope [7]. In it he describes how America’s founding generation especially feared the kind of corruption that occurs when the private ends of a narrow faction succeed in capturing the engines of government. James Madison and many of his contemporaries knew this kind of corruption could consume the republic.  Looking at history a tragic lens, they thought the life cycle of republics – their degeneration into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy — was inescapable. And they attempted to erect safeguards against it, hoping to prevent private and narrow personal interests from overriding those of the general public.

They failed. Hardly a century passed after the ringing propositions of 1776 than America was engulfed in the gross materialism and political corruption of the First Gilded Age, when Big Money bought the government right out from under the voters.  In their magisterial work on The Growth of the American Republic [8], the historians Morrison, Commager, and Leuchtenberg describe how in that era “privilege controlled politics,” and “the purchase of votes, the corruption of election officials, the bribing of legislatures, the lobbying of special bills, and the flagrant disregard of laws” threatened the very foundations of the country.

I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that this “degenerate and unlovely age” – as one historian described it — served to inspire Karl Rove, the man said to be George W. Bush’s brain and now a mover and shaker of the money tree for the corporate-conservative complex (more on that, later.) The extraordinary coupling of private and political power toward the close of the 19th century – the First Gilded Age – captured Rove’s interest, especially the role of Mark Hanna, the Ohio operative who became the first modern political fund-raiser. (David von Drehle wrote (“Washington Post, July 24, 1999) that “as a tenacious student of political history, Rove had dug so deeply into the McKinley era that he had become “the swami of McKinley mania.” Rove denied it to the writer Ron Susskind, who then went on to talk to old colleagues of Rove “dating back 25 years, one of whom said: “Some kids want to grow up to be president, Karl wanted to grow up to be Mark Hanna. We’d talk about it all the time. We’d say, ‘Jesus, Karl, what kind of kid wants to grow up to be Mark Hanna?”

“There are two things that are important in politics,” Hanna said. “The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” He had become rich as a business man in Ohio, “the characteristic American capitalist of the Gilded Age” (Columbia Encyclopedia). He was famously depicted by one cartoonist as “Dollar Mark,” the prototype of plutocracy. Hanna tapped the banks, the insurance companies, the railroads and the other industrial trusts of the late 1800s for all the money it took to make William McKinley Governor of Ohio and then President of the United States. McKinley was the perfect conduit for Hanna’s connivance and their largesse–one of those politicians with a talent for emitting banalities as though they were recently discovered truth. Hanna raised “an unprecedented amount of money [the biggest check came from the oil baron John Rockefeller) and ran a sophisticated, hardball campaign that got McKinley to the White House, “where he governed negligently in the interests of big business,” wrote Jacob Weisberg in “Slate” (November 2, 2005)  His opponent in the 1896 election was the Democrat-Populist candidate, William Jennings Bryan, whose base consisted of aroused populists – the remnant of the People’s Party – who were outraged at the rapacity and shenanigans of the monopolies, trusts, and corporations that were running roughshod over ordinary Americans. Because Bryan threatened those big economic interests he was able to raise only one-tenth the money that Mark Hanna raised for McKinley, and he lost: Money in politics is an old story.

Karl Rove would have learned from his study of Hanna the principles of plutonomy. For Hanna believed “the state of Ohio existed for property. It had no other function…Great wealth was to be gained through monopoly, through using the State for private ends; it was axiomatic therefore that businessmen should run the government and run it for personal profit.”

He and McKinley therefore saw to it that first Ohio and then Washington were “ruled by business…by bankers, railroads, and public utility corporations.” The United States Senate was infamous as “a millionaire’s club.” City halls, state houses and even courtrooms were bought and sold like baubles. Instead of enforcing the rules of fair play, government served as valet to the plutocrats.  The young journalist Henry George had written that “an immense wedge” was being forced through American society by “the maldistribution of wealth, status, and opportunity.” Now inequality exploded into what the historian Clinton Rossiter described as “the great train robbery of American intellectual history.” Conservatives of the day – pro-corporate apologists – hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian liberalism and turned words like “progress,” “opportunity,” and “individualism” into tools for making the plunder of America sound like divine right. Laissez faire ideologues and neo-cons of the day – lovers of empire even then – hijacked Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and so distorted it that politicians, judges, and publicists gleefully embraced the notion that progress emerges from the elimination of the weak and the “survival of the fittest.”  As one of the plutocrats crowed: “We are rich. We own America. We got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it.”

And they have never given up. The Gilded Age returned with a vengeance in our time. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began a “massive decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich.” As Roger Hodge makes clear, under Bill Clinton the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever-growing share of national income. The trend continued under George W. Bush – those huge tax cuts for the rich, remember, which are now about to be extended because both parties have been bought off by the wealthy — and by 2007 the wealthiest 10% of Americans were taking in 50% of the national income. Today, a fraction of people at the top today earn more than the bottom 120 million Americans.

You will hear it said, “Come on, this is the way the world works.” No, it’s the way the world is made to work. This vast inequality is not the result of Adam Smith’s invisible hand; it did not just happen; it was no accident. As Hodge drives home, it is the result of a long series of policy decisions “about industry and trade, taxation and military spending, by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in concrete-and-steel buildings.” And those policy decisions were paid for by the less than one percent who participate in our capitalist democracy political contributions. Over the past 30 years, with the complicity of Republicans and Democrats alike, the plutocrats, or plutonomists (choose your own poison) have used their vastly increased wealth to assure that government does their bidding. Remember that grateful Citigroup reference to “market-friendly governments” on the side of plutonomy? We had a story down in Texas for that sort of thing; the dealer in a poker game says to the dealer, “Now play the cards fairly, Reuben; I know what I dealt you.” (To see just how our system was rigged by the financial, political, and university elites, run, don’t walk, to the theater nearest you showing Charles Ferguson’s new film,Inside Job [9].” Take a handkerchief because you’ll weep for the republic.)

Looking back, it all seems so clear that we wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs at the time. One of the few journalists who did see it coming – Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post – reported that “business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperative action in the legislative arena.” Big business political action committees flooded the political arena with a deluge of dollars. They funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. And their political allies in the conservative movement cleverly built alliances with the religious right – Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition – who zealously waged a cultural holy war that camouflaged the economic assault on working people and the middle class.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan also tried to warn us. He said President Reagan’s real strategy was to force the government to cut domestic social programs by fostering federal deficits of historic dimensions. Senator Moynihan was gone before the financial catastrophe on George W. Bush’s watch that paradoxically could yet fulfill Reagan’s dream. The plutocrats who soaked up all the money now say the deficits require putting Social Security and other public services on the chopping block. You might think that Mr. Bush today would regret having invaded Iraq on false pretenses at a cost of more than a trillion dollars and counting, but no, just last week he said that his biggest regret was his failure to privatize Social Security. With over 100 Republicans of the House having signed a pledge to do just that when the new Congress convenes, Mr. Bush’s vision may yet be realized.

Daniel Altman also saw what was coming. In his book Neoconomy [10] he described a place without taxes or a social safety net, where rich and poor live in different financial worlds. “It’s coming to America,” he wrote. Most likely he would not have been surprised recently when firefighters in rural Tennessee would let a home burn to the ground because the homeowner hadn’t paid a $75 fee.

That’s what is coming to America.

***

Here we are now, on the verge of the biggest commercial transaction in the history of American elections.  Once again the plutocracy is buying off the system. Nearly $4 billion is being spent on the congressional races that will be decided next week, including multi-millions coming from independent tax-exempt organizations that can collect unlimited amounts without revealing the sources.  The organization Public Citizen reports that just 10 groups are responsible for the bulk of the spending by independent groups: “A tiny number of organizations, relying on a tiny number of corporate and fat cat contributors, are spending most of the money on the vicious attack ads dominating the airwaves” – those are the words of Public Citizen’s president, Robert Weissman. The Federal Election Commission says that two years ago 97% of groups paying for election ads disclosed the names of their donors. This year it’s only 32%.

Socrates again: To remember a thing, you must first name it. We’re talking about slush funds. Donors are laundering their cash through front groups with high-falutin’ names like American Crossroads. That’s one of the two slush funds controlled by Karl Rove in his ambition to revive the era of the robber barons. Promise me you won’t laugh when I tell you that although Rove and the powerful Washington lobbyist who is his accomplice described the first organization as “grassroots”, 97% of its initial contributions came from four billionaires. Yes: The grass grows mighty high when the roots are fertilized with gold.

Rove, other conservative groups and the Chamber of Commerce have in fact created a “shadow party” determined to be the real power in Washington just like Rome’s Opus Dei in Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code.” In this shadow party the plutocrats reign.  We have reached what the new chairman of Common Cause and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls “the perfect storm that threatens American democracy: an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top; a record amount of secret money, flooding our democracy; and a public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government that’s raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it back to work. We’re losing our democracy to a different system. It’s called plutocracy.”

That word again. But Reich is right. That fraction of one percent of Americans who now earn as much as the bottom 120 million Americans includes the top executives of giant corporations and those Wall Street hedge funds and private equity managers who constitute Citigroup’s “plutonomy” are buying our democracy and they’re doing it in secret.

That’s because early this year the five reactionary members of the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are “persons” with the right to speak during elections by funding ads like those now flooding the airwaves. It was the work of legal fabulists.  Corporations are not people; they are legal fictions, creatures of the state, born not of the womb, not of flesh and blood.  They’re not permitted to vote. They don’t bear arms (except for the nuclear bombs they can now drop on a congressional race without anyone knowing where it came from.) Yet thanks to five activist conservative judges they have the privilege of “personhood” to “speak” – and not in their own voice, mind you, but as ventriloquists, through hired puppets.

Does anyone really think that’s what the authors of the First Amendment had in mind? Horrified by such a profound perversion, the editor of the spunky Texas Observer, Bob Moser, got it right with his headline: “So long, Democracy, it’s been good to know you.”

You’ll recall that soon after the Court’s decision President Obama raised the matter during his State of the Union speech in January.  He said the decision would unleash a torrent of corrupting corporate money into our political system. Sitting a few feet in front of the president, Associate Justice Samuel Alito defiantly mouthed the words: “Not true.”

Not true? Terry Forcht knew otherwise. He’s the wealthy nursing home executive in Kentucky one of whose establishments is being prosecuted by Attorney General Jack Conway for allegedly covering up sexual abuse. Conway is running for the Senate. Forcht has spent more than $1 million to defeat him. Would you believe that Forcht is the banker for one of Karl Rove’s two slush funds, American Crossroads, which has spent nearly $30 million to defeat Democrats.

What’s that, Justice Alito? Not true?

Alan Grayson, for one, got it. He’s a member of Congress and knows how the world is made to work. He recently said: “We’re now in a situation where a lobbyist can walk into my office…and say, “I’ve got five million dollars to spend and I can spend it for you or against you. Which do you prefer?”

Alito was either disingenuous, naïve, or deluded. He can’t be in this world without knowing he and his four fellow corporatists were giving big donors the one thing they most want in their campaign against working people: an unfair advantage.

My friend and colleague, the writer Michael Winship, told a story this week that illuminates the Court’s coup de grace against democracy. It seems the incorrigible George Bernard Shaw once propositioned a fellow dinner guest, asking if she would go to bed with him for a million pounds (today around $1,580,178 US dollars). She agreed. Shaw then asked if she would do the same for ten shillings. “What do you take me for?” she asked angrily. “A prostitute?” Shaw responded: “We’ve established the principle, Madam. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

With this one decision, the Supreme Court established once and for all that Shaw’s is the only principle left in politics, as long as the price is right.

Come now and let’s visit Washington’s red light district, headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the front group for the plutocracy’s prostitution of politics. The Chamber boasts it represents more than three million businesses and approximately 300,000 members. But in reality it has almost nothing to do with the shops and stores along your local streets. The Chamber’s branding, as the economics journalist Zach Carter recently wrote, “allows them to disguise their political agenda as a coalition of local businesses while it does dirty work for corporate titans.” Carter reported that when the Supreme Court came down with its infamous ruling earlier this year, the Chamber responded by announcing a 40% boost in its political spending operations. After the money started flowing in, the Chamber boosted its budget again by 50%.

After digging into corporate foundation tax filings and other public records, the New York Times found that the Chamber of Commerce has “increasingly relied on a relatively small collection of big corporate donors” – the plutocracy’s senior ranks – “to finance much of its legislative and political agenda.” Furthermore, the chamber “makes no apologies for its policy of not identifying its donors.” Indeed, “It has vigorously opposed legislation in Congress that would require groups like it to identify their biggest contributors when they spend money on campaign ads.”

Now let’s connect some dots. While knocking down nearly all limits on corporate spending in campaigns, the Supreme Court did allow for disclosure, which would at least tell us who’s buying off the government. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell even claimed that “sunshine” laws would make everything okay. But after the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require that the names of all such donors be publicly disclosed, McConnell lined up every Republican in the Senate to oppose it.  Hardly had the public begun to sing “Let the Sunshine In” than McConnell & Company went tone deaf. And when the chief lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce was asked by an interviewer, “Are you guys eventually going to disclose?” the answer was a brisk: “No.” Why? Because those corporations are afraid of a public backlash. Like bank robbers pulling a heist, they prefer to hide their “personhood” behind sock masks. Surely that tells us something about the nature of what they’re doing. In the words of one of the characters in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day: “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse in places where everything is kept in the dark.”

That’s true in politics, too. Thus it turns out that many of the ads being paid for secretly by anonymous donors are “false, grossly misleading, or marred with distortions,” as Greg Sargent reports in his website “The Plum Line.” Go to Sargent’s site [11] and you’ll see a partial list of ads that illustrate the scope of the intellectual and political fraud being perpetrated in front of our eyes. Money from secret sources is poisoning the public mind with toxic information in order to dupe voters into giving even more power to the powerful.

On another site -“thinkprogress.com [12]” – you can find out how the multi-billionaire Koch brothers – also big oil polluters and Tea Party supporters – are recruiting “captains of industry” to fund the right-wing infrastructure of front groups, political campaigns, think tanks and media outlets. Now, hold on to your seats, because this can blow away the faint-hearted:  Among the right-wing luminaries who showed up among Koch’s ‘secretive network of Republican donors’ are two Supreme Court Justices: Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. That’s right: 2 of the 5 votes to enable the final corporate takeover of government came from justices who were present as members of the plutocracy hatched their schemes for doing so.

Something else is going on here, too. The Koch brothers have contributed significantly to efforts to stop the Affordable Care Act – the health care reforms – from taking effect. Justice Clarence Thomas has obviously been doing some home schooling, because his wife Virginia claims those reforms are “unconstitutional,” and has founded an organization that is fighting to repeal them. Her own husband on the Supreme Court may one day be ruling on whether she’s right or not (“Play the cards fair, Reuben; I know what I dealt you.”) There’s more: The organization Virginia Thomas founded to kill those health care reforms — also a goal of the Koch brothers, remember — got its start with a gift of half a million dollars from an unnamed source, and is still being funded by donors who can’t be traced.  You have to wonder if some of them are corporations that stand to benefit from favorable decisions by the Supreme Court. Now guess the name of the one Supreme Court justice who voted against the disclosure provision. I’m not telling, but Mrs. Thomas can tell you – if, that is, she’s willing to share the pillow talk.

This truly puzzles me. It’s what I can’t figure out about the conservative mindset. The Kochs I can understand: messianic Daddy Warbucks who can’t imagine what life is like for people who aren’t worth 21 billion dollars. But whatever happened to “compassionate conservatism?” The Affordable Care Act – whatever its flaws – extends health care coverage to over 40 million deprived Americans who would otherwise be uncovered.  What is it about these people – the Thomases, the secret donors, the privileged plutocrats on their side – that they can’t embrace a little social justice where it counts – among everyday people struggling to get by in a dog-eat-dog world? Health care coverage could mean the difference between life and death for them. Mrs. Thomas is obviously doing okay; she no doubts takes at least a modest salary from that private slush fund working to undermine the health care reforms; her own husband is a government employee covered by a federal plan.  Why wouldn’t she want people less fortunate than her to have a little security, too? She headquarters her organization at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a reportedly Christian school aligned with the Moral Majority. How is it she’s only about “Live and Let Live?” Have they never heard there the Old Time Religion of “Live and help live?”  Why would this cushioned, comfortable crowd, pious crowd resort to such despicable tactics as using secret money to try to turn public policy against their less fortunate neighbors, and in the process compromise the already tattered integrity of the United States Supreme Court?

I don’t get it.

You be the judge (Because if you don’t, Justice Thomas will.)

Time to close the circle: Everyone knows millions of Americans are in trouble. As Robert Reich recently summed it the state of working people: They’ve lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings. Their grown children have moved back in with them. Their state and local taxes are rising. Teachers and firefighters are being laid off. The roads and bridges they count on are crumbling, pipelines are leaking, schools are dilapidated, and public libraries are being shut.

Why isn’t government working for them? Because it’s been bought off. It’s as simple as that. And until we get clean money we’re not going to get clean elections, and until we get clean elections, you can kiss goodbye government of, by, and for the people. Welcome to the plutocracy.

Obviously Howard Zinn would not have us leave it there. Defeat was never his counsel. Look at this headline above one of his essays published posthumously this fall by the Progressive magazine: DON’T DESPAIR ABOUT THE SUPREME COURT. The Court was lost long ago, he said – don’t go there looking for justice. “The Constitution gave no rights to working people; no right to work less than 12 hours a day, no right to a living wage, no right to safe working conditions. Workers had to organize, go on strike, defy the law, the courts, the police, create a great movement which won the eight-hour day, and caused such commotion that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, and Social Security, and unemployment insurance….Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel and violate the law in order to uphold justice.”

So what are we to do about Big Money in politics buying off democracy? I can almost hear him throwing that question back at us: “What are we to do? ORGANIZE! Yes, organize-and don’t count the costs.” Some people already are. They’re mobilizing. There’s a rumbling in the land. All across the spectrum people oppose the escalating power of money in politics.  Fed-up Democrats. Disillusioned Republicans. Independents. Greens. Even Tea Partiers, once they wake up to realize they have been sucker-punched by their bankrollers who have no intention of sharing the wealth. Veteran public interest groups like Common Cause and Public Citizen are aroused. There are the rising voices, from web-based initiatives such as “freespeechforpeople.org” to grassroots initiatives such as “Democracy Matters” on campuses across the country, including a chapter here at Boston University. “Moveon.org” is looking for a million people to fight back in a many-pronged strategy to counter  the Supreme Court decision.

What’s promising in all this is that in taking on Big Money we’re talking about something more than a single issue.  We’re talking about a broad-based coalition to restore American democracy – one that is trying to be smart about the nuts-and-bolts of building a coalition, remembering that it has a lot to do with human nature. Some will want to march. Some will want to petition. Some will want to engage through the web. Some will want to go door-to-door: many gifts, but the same spirit. A fighting spirit. As Howard Zinn would tell us: No fight, no fun, no results.

But here’s the key: If you’re fighting for a living wage, or peace, or immigration reform, or gender equality, or the environment, or a safe neighborhood, you are, of necessity, strongly opposed to a handful of moneyed-interests controlling how decisions get made and policy set. Because most Americans are attuned to principle of fair play, of not favoring Big Money at the expense of the little guy – at the expense of the country they love. The legendary community organizer Ernesto Cortes talks about the “power to preserve what we value.” That’s what we want for Americans – the power to preserve what we value, both for ourselves and on behalf of our democracy.

But let’s be clear:  Even with most Americans on our side, the odds are long. We learned long ago that power and privilege never give up anything without a struggle. Money fights hard, and it fights dirty. Think Rove. The Chamber. The Kochs. We may lose. It all may be impossible. But it’s OK if it’s impossible. Hear the former farmworker and labor organizer Baldemar Velasquez on this.  The members of his Farm Labor Organizing Committee are a long way from the world of K Street lobbyists. But they took on the Campbell Soup Company – and won. They took on North Carolina growers – and won, using transnational organizing tacts that helped win Velasquez a “genius” award from the MacArthur Foundation. And now they’re taking on no less than R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and one of its principal financial sponsors, JPMorgan-Chase.  Some people question the wisdom of taking on such powerful interests, but here’s what Velasquez says: “It’s OK if it’s impossible; it’s OK!” Now I’m going to speak to you as organizers. Listen carefully. The object is not to win. That’s not the objective. The object is to do the right and good thing. If you decide not to do anything, because it’s too hard or too impossible, then nothing will be done, and when you’re on your death bed, you’re gonna say, “I wish I had done something. But if you go and do the right thing NOW, and you do it long enough “good things will happen-something’s gonna happen.”

Shades of Howard Zinn!

Bill Moyers is a journalist and was long-time managing editor of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. Archive material and updates are still available at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers [14].

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