Betting on the Kids of Stoneman Douglas

John Meacham, the erudite presidential historian, was asked if he thought the protest by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School would change the gun laws in this country. He said that, much as he admired the students, he doubted it very much.  He said that change takes a long time so, even if change happened, it wouldn’t be soon.

He gave two examples of the long time it takes to create social change.  One example was Abigail Adams, writing to her husband in 1776 to “remember the ladies” in regard to female rights as he was working with others to produce the Declaration of Independence, but it took 144 years before women had the right to vote. The other example was that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, but 100 years later, in the 1960’s, blacks were still battling for their civil rights and racism continues to plague our country today.

Not everyone doubts that the students will produce a substantive social change. Dahlia Lithwick, who writes about the courts and the law for Slate, is optimistic about the students’ success in changing the gun laws in this country. She is optimistic because she sees ways in which the students are creating social change that are different from how adults of the present operate and how efforts of the past went down. Dahlia Lithwick says that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are different because:

1.     They are ignoring Donald Trump. They regard him as a symptom of the problem of gun violence and unworthy of credit or blame. They stay focused on and give their attention to the problem itself.

2.     They don’t waste time and energy arguing with people who don’t share their values and goals.  They don’t attempt gentle persuasion; they know they are being lied to.

 3.     They don’t seem hell-bent on having leaders.  They share the spotlight with one another and take turns being the spokesperson. They seem to relish the collaboration they share.

4.     They expect to win.  They don’t have the fatalism of older progressives who persuade themselves that the NRA and Republican interests are too powerful to overcome so give up before they begin.  They show us what being awake, alive, human, and compassionate actually looks like.

Dahlia Lithwick concludes that, because the students are unconstrained by our norms, they will accomplish wonders.

Diane Ravitch agrees and writes this about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and all the other high school students across the country who stand with them:

Students care, and they are not afraid. They are idealistic. They want fairness. They want justice. They have energy. They have not been beaten down by the system. No one can accuse them of being self-interested, unless self-interest means they hope to stay alive.

I’m betting on the kids. And I’m betting on our democracy working.

The Voices Of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have forever removed three words from our language: “failing public schools”.  The critical thinking and articulateness of those 14 – 18 year old students are moving us all. There is no other way to account for the way they are changing the conversation about gun violence in this country other than to say that they have incredible intellectual skills and a work ethic that drives them to excellence.

I know what it is to experience the sudden, traumatic death of loved one. I know what it does to you when your life as you know it disappears in a moment. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have experienced that, yet they have something deep within them that is leading them to think and to act. That something is the education that their parents and their schools have given them.

There have been other loud voices in our society who repeatedly use the words, “failing public schools”. They call themselves “school reformers” and petition state legislatures to use tax payer funds to replace public schools with charter schools. Their goal is to make money for themselves and their selling point to legislatures is that we must rid this country of “failing public schools”. These self- proclaimed “school reformers”  use the term “failing pubic schools” to convince well-meaning but uninformed parents to send their children to charter schools that increase their children’s segregation and treat their children as second class citizens, incapable of individuation and critical thinking. I am sure that state legislatures would not spend taxpayer money on charter schools and parents would not send their children to charter schools without the power of the term that the “school reformers” use: ” failing pubic schools”.

The phrase, however, is not true. It is not the public schools that are failing. What is failing is our investment in addressing issues of poverty and racism.

The voices in our society to listen to are the voices of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Their articulate voices are saving future students from the horror that was theirs. Their articulate voices are changing our approach to gun violence. Their articulate voices will make us a better, stronger nation.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are showing us that they are thinkers and doers. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are using the education their families and schools gave them in powerful ways. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are not the products of  “failing public schools”. They are the products of public schools that helped them to grow and to learn and to mature into leaders.

I am inspired by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and I thank them.

Choose: Assault Weapons Or Children

This is my favorite work of art in my home.  The child’s face is full of receptivity and joy, and the mother looks at her child with delight. They are truly connected.

That painting reminds me not only of my joy in parenting my own three children but also reminds me of the joy I found in helping adolescents in my classes to fall in love with reading literature and fall in love with being a writer. The painting speaks to me of nurturing. The painting speaks to me of the deep value of the kind of connection in which adults foster growth in children and delight in doing it.

But Russ Walsh, a noted educator and writer, emphatically states that we as a country do not value nurturing children, do not value that kind of connection between ourselves as adults and all the children of our country. He makes a strong argument that, as a nation, we do not, in fact, care about our children. He says:

The continued gun violence visited upon America’s schools and school children, along with the abject failure of the adults who run the country to do anything about it, leads me to one inescapable conclusion: In the United States of America, we don’t care about our children. When I say “our children” here, I am referring to children in general, not individual children. As the grieving parents in Florida today will attest, we all care about our own children. What we do not seem to care about is all the other children.

I urge you to read the whole of Russ Walsh’s piece. The three statistics he quotes will convince you of how our nation has not cared for our children. .

He goes on to say:

The only way to explain the lack of action on gun violence in the schools is that we value our right to bear arms more than we value our children. Politicians seem to be unable to even have a conversation about bringing gun proliferation under control. Our founding fathers, I am sure, did not mean for the second amendment to require that we were to remain impotent in protecting our children from guns in the hands of society’s disaffected. Surely. “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” means freedom from fear of being shot in your own classroom. Surely the right to bear arms is a limited right, just as every other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights is limited by the simple fact that the unfettered exercise of that right could endanger others. So we have no right to cry, “Fire!” in a crowded theater and no right to refuse to wear a seat belt and we have even decided to give up the right to smoke in public places. Surely we can all do without the right to carry an AR-15 around with us.

It’s time. In fact, it’s more than time; it’s way, way, way overdue. It’s time for all responsible Americans to join with the outraged students from Parkland. It’s time to show those heartbroken, articulate young people that they and their teachers matter, that the Sandy Hook children and their teachers and principal matter. It’s time to say that 239 school shootings since Sandy Hook in which 438 people were shot and 138 people killed is enough. It’s time to tell the world that the United States of America does, indeed, value everyone’s children.

A way to begin:

Please join Russ Walsh, me, and all educators to say that we, as a nation, will finally, at long last, nurture all of our children. Come out with your neighbors, friends, and children and join the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence on April 20 (The anniversary of the Columbine shooting).

You can sign up here.

The Banning Of Books – 2018 Style

The Washington Post reported last week about the banning of two books. No it’s not the 1950’s; it’s 2018. Here’s the story:

A Minnesota school district is dropping two classic novels, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” from its required reading list because of the books’ liberal use of a racial slur.

Officials at Duluth Public Schools say the move, which follows similar ones taken by other school districts in Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania in recent years, was a response to complaints they had received in the past. The books are still available in libraries, and students can read them on their own time, but school officials will look at other novels on the same topic to add to its curriculum, Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Cary, who was not available for comment Wednesday, told the paper.

The Duluth Public Schools have it wrong on three counts:

1. Of course, the N-word makes us all feel uncomfortable because it marginalizes people. That’s precisely why we should address that use of language: to see what’s beneath the use of that word and develop sensitivity about its use and the damage it causes. The N-word can be seen as what it is: just a word – not  a good word or a bad word – but one that has power because of how it has been and currently is being used in our society. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the word was used because that’s how people of that time talked. In To Kill A Mockingbird, the use of that word showed how prejudiced, cruel characters talked.

      2.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the moral center of the book is when Huck, who lives in a time and place in which African Americans are regarded as property and not as human beings, decides to treat a black man as an equal. Huck knows, from all that he has been taught by his church and his community, that he must turn in Jim, a runaway slave, so that Jim will be returned to his rightful owner, but he decides not to do that. Huck is sure what his consequence will be and says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” He thought he would be condemned to hell for all eternity but could not do as his church and community dictated. He could not treat Jim as property. Why? Because he realized that Jim was his friend, his equal, not a possession. What better example of equity and dignity for all people, black and white, than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

        3. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus, a lawyer in Alabama, takes a case that anyone else would regard as an open and shut case against a black man. A white woman accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of making sexual advances to her. The all-white jury never doubted his guilt. No evidence was needed; his blackness condemned him. Atticus presented evidence to show Tom Robinson’s innocence and prevented the community from lynching him. Atticus taught his young daughter, whether it be Tom Robinson or Bo Radley, a white man in the community who was a social pariah because of his disabilities, that she should treat each person with respect, that each person has dignity. Atticus told her that she should try to understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of others. The book offers a criticism of prejudice and of those who use the N-word.

I have been a central office administrator who receives the complaints about books being used in the schools. Each complaint always began with these words: On page…., this was said or happened ” and “On this  page, this was said or happened….. After the complaining person described precisely what had happened on those offending pages. I would ask the person this question, “Did you read the whole book?” Every time, the answer was “No”. I would then explain that reading the whole book would be a good idea. Objections to books, most often, result from not understanding the context of the objection.

Michael Cary is wrong. It’s not about finding other books “on the topic” to add to the curriculum. Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird are works of art. They are not replicable. We study them not because they are about a “topic”  but because they offer unique ways for students to question the human experience and to make sense of their own lives. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird offer students what no other books ” on the topic” can possibly offer.

If we didn’t have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, I would want to make them up.

How else could we deal sensitively and poignantly with the fact that language can hurt people? How else could we bring up questions of what it means to be hero in our society which has questions of racism at its core?  How else could we explore issues of racial prejudice? How else could we explore questions about an individual’s relationship to the norms of American society? How else could we explore questions of justice and human dignity in American society?

These questions are best generated when students read these books as part of a class. Reading on one’s own never brings up as many questions and ideas as reading in a thoughtful way with other readers. Also, reading these books in class is the way to develop students into better, more mature readers. The Duluth Public Schools, which restricts students to reading these books on their own, stands in the way of the students’ growth as readers.

The people complaining about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird and the people who made the decision to remove the books should read the whole books. And then we’ll see what happens.

Meanwhile, the rest of us not living in Duluth, Minnesota or in school districts in Virginia, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania who similarly banned those books had best make sure that our own children have the opportunity to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, make sure that our own  children are truly educated.

Resist Now. In The Name Of Equity.

Governor Malloy’s proposed budget gives a tax break to the rich.

Here’s what it is:

He advocates extending the 529 college savings plans, called CHET (Connecticut Higher Education Trust), to savings plans that can be used for K-12 education as well as college. As reported in the well-researched and comprehensive article in The CT Mirror  by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on January 16, 2018, the state currently allows parents to avoid paying state income taxes each year on up to $10,000 that they put into a college savings account. In addition, they don’t have to pay taxes on the earned income when the money is withdrawn to pay for college.

Using 529 accounts to fund K-12 education in addition to college is part of the new Republican/Trump tax plan. States can go along with that tax plan or become decoupled from it. Governor Malloy has chosen to keep the state and federal tax plans coupled and go along with Donald Trump. The Connecticut General assembly will decide whether or not to go along with Dan Malloy.

Here’s how it will work:

According to figures compiled for The Connecticut Mirror by the financial services company Vanguard, this is the picture for Connecticut families.

  1. Family A has a baby and, as soon as the baby is born,  puts $200,000 into a 529 savings account for the future education of that baby. The family then withdraws $10,000 a year to pay for the child’s K-12 private school education. The family avoids paying $49,800 in federal taxes over the 13 years. At the end of the high school years, the family will have $382,000 in the account to pay for the child’s college education.
  2. Family B has a baby and, as soon as the baby is born, puts $66,000 into a 529 savings account for the future education of the baby. The family withdraws $10,000 a year to pay for the child’s private school K-12 education. The family avoids paying $18,200 in federal taxes over the 13 years. But the family will have no money left in the account to pay for college.
  3. Family C has a baby and does not have any money to deposit in a chunk to a 529 savings account at the baby’s birth but saves what it can over the following 18 years for college expenses. All savings are needed for college; there is no money available for private K-12 education. There, probably, is not enough to fully fund college education.
  4. Family D has a baby and has no ability to save in any way for college.

So the only people who will profit from the plan that Governor Malloy is proposing are the very wealthy, only those who qualify as Family A. Donald Trump’s tax plan and Dan Malloy’s budget proposal have no benefit for Family B, Family C, and Family D.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots widens. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor – and the middle class struggles.

And here’s the real kicker: The rest of us will pay for that tax break for the rich. The Governor’s Office of Policy and Management estimates that 529 plans for K-12 education will cost the state $39 million per year.

Here’s why the Governor’s proposal is wrong:

  1. We barely have enough money to keep the lights on in the state, yet the Governor is asking all of the citizens in Connecticut to fund this substantial tax break for its wealthiest citizens.
  2. There will be less money available to fund public schools, especially those in high poverty areas that depend on state funding, because of the added strain on the state budget caused by the state supporting the extension of the 529 savings plans to K-12 education.
  3. The access to private school will not be extended to middle income families. In Connecticut, private high schools cost day students between $43,600 and $48,080 for tuition alone. Catholic high school tuition is between $14,300 and $19,800 per year. Private elementary schools cost over $40,000 per year, and Catholic elementary schools charge about $8,000 for tuition.                                                                                                                    Middle income families cannot fund a private K-12 education; it is clearly an option for only the wealthy The total cost of a private K-12 education in Connecticut is between $260,000 and $570.000. Even an education at a local K-8 parochial school and a regional Catholic high school costs between $130,000 and $150,000. Paying for any of these schools is out of reach for middle-income families who are saving for college. So those who claims that Donald Trump’s tax plan and Governor Malloy’s proposal is extending school choice to anyone other than the incredibly affluent are not realistic. In fact, they are wrong.
  4. Lastly, there are questions about exclusion of students based on sexual orientation and learning disabilities in non-public schools. Some religious schools have been found to be discriminatory concerning the sexual orientation and life style of their employees.  A case about that kind of discrimination in a Connecticut school is currently in the courts. State funds should not support schools that do not meet state standards for anti-discrimination.
  5. Connecticut has excellent public schools. Connecticut also has a problem with poverty. State funds are best directed to address the underlying causes of poverty which inhibit the learning potential of children mired in poverty rather than give tax beaks to those who already can afford private schools.

Here’s what you can do:

Call your state legislator ( and tell him or her to reject the Trump and Malloy proposal. Tell your state legislator to reject the extension of the 529 college savings accounts to 529 savings accounts for K-12 education. Tell your legislator that having 529 savings accounts for K-12 education is unfair, undemocratic, and fiscally irresponsible.

Then call your state legislator again, saying the same thing.

And then call again.

And again.

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