Saturday, March 3, 2012


Our friends over at Publicola have recently been hosting a rousing debate between big bucks Democrat Nick Hanauer and WEA President Mary Lindquist on teachers’ unions and K-12 schools. Here at the blog, we have a hard time resisting sticking our nose into issues we don’t know much about, so we decided to join the fun with our own open letter to Mr. Hanauer:
Dear Mr. Hanauer,
I’ve been reading your recent Publicola colloquy with WEA President Mary Lindquist with interest. I appreciate the way that you have genuinely engaged the question of what you call school reform and that you took the time to respond to Mary’s letter to you. That’s unusual—most rich people who appoint themselves experts in something don’t usually engage with the people they criticize. You seem like a guy who might be willing to listen, so I’d like to take the presumptuous step of joining the discussion.
In the full disclosure department, I am a professor at Western Washington University and the president of the United Faculty of Washington State, which represents the faculty at Washington’s four regional comprehensive universities. We are affiliated with WEA and I sit on the WEA Board of Directors. But, while I have learned a lot about K-12 education from the teachers and staff at the WEA, my union work deals almost exclusively with higher education, so I’m probably as much out of my depth as you are when it comes to K-12 education. This letter is from one uninformed outsider to another and is not in any way an official response from the WEA.
In your letter to Mary you say that it’s not the hard-working, dedicated teachers who are ruining education but rather their nasty, child-hating union. I grew up as an upper middle class white boy in the American South, where all of the white grownups had their favorite Black people—the cook, the person who looked after the kids, the guy who took care of the cattle for a share of the corn crop. But God forbid that one of those favorites be seen gathering on a street corner with Black people from out of town, or at an NAACP meeting, or having coffee with a union representative. At the first hint of any organized activity, our grownups would turn on their favorite Black people faster than a summer squall could dump an inch of rain on the pasture. Suddenly the individuals who had been so tender, wise, and trustworthy were scary, too stupid to know better, and not to be let into the house. Everybody loved the solitary black person, nobody liked it when they started to bunch up and talk crazy.
That’s kind of the way it is with teachers. Everybody loves a teacher, nobody likes the big, bad teachers’ union. As long as they’re staying after school to give the extra help to the kids who need it or reaching into their own pockets to pay for the supplies that the state doesn’t anymore, teachers are saints. But when they collectively advocate for decent wages, adequate health care, and working conditions that don’t erode by the minute they’re a threat to the moral fabric of the state.
Perhaps it is this construction of a teachers’ union that isn’t composed of teachers (the same way my southern relatives always believed that organized black people were put up to it by uppity Northern Blacks or communists) that leads to some of the difficult constructions in your letter to Mary. You say that “the vast majority of Washington’s teachers care deeply about student outcomes, work incredibly hard, and are constantly working to improve their instructional practices.” But in the very next paragraph you talk about the “elements that are largely missing from our State’s public education system: relentlessly high standards, a culture of excellence, and a systemic commitment to innovation.” For both of these things to be true, you have to imagine the deeply caring, hard working, forward looking teachers you describe coming together in their democratically elected union and suddenly losing all interest in excellence and innovation.
The truth is that teachers in this state and across the country are concerned about the “reforms” so relentlessly pursued by well-funded corporate interests (from Arne Duncan to the Gates Foundation to the League of Education Voters) because many of them will do to public education what the same kind of privatizing “reform” did to health care. Education is what Wall Street has called “the big enchilada,” the last big public sphere (after health care) available for private exploitation and profit. And if we privatize education while trotting out euphemisms like reform, efficiency, and excellence, we’ll get exactly what we have now with health care. Rich people will have access to the best education in the world and everybody else will get education that is extremely profitable but below the standards of many developing countries.
There is something deeply disingenuous about the arguments that you and other business elite school reformers make when you say things like “I am not a teacher and would not presume to tell you how to teach . . . but in my experience as a business leader and entrepreneur . . . .” The education foundations and leagues and task forces that people like you fund are full of non-teachers who are constantly telling teachers how to teach, but even if that weren’t true, the evidence of your steel-eyed business sense is hard to see in the education “reforms” you’re pushing. I’m not a business leader and entrepreneur, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine that if education were a company you were trying to turn around, you wouldn’t be focusing on the stuff that’s always a part of education “reform.”
  • If you had a company that was as desperately underfunded as public education, you probably would make that funding your first priority.
  • If you had a company that needed more workers as desperately as public education needs more teachers, you wouldn’t spend all your time worrying about the order in which you were going to lay off the workers you have.
  • If you had a company that desperately needed the most trained and qualified workers the way that our schools need the most trained and qualified teachers, you wouldn’t turn to a temp agency like Teach For America (whose freshly scrubbed and earnest young charges make up for their lack of qualification with lots of well-meaning white liberal racism).
  • And you certainly wouldn’t spend your time writing complicated and lugubrious evaluation policies that only the most committed HR bureaucrat could love.
If a smart business person like you were running public education and looking to genuinely succeed, you would hire the very best people you could find, you would hire enough of them, you would pay them very well, you would get out of their way and let them do their jobs, and you would fire them if they didn’t get that job done. The only thing that the education “reform” movement seems to be genuinely interested in is the firing part.
In your letter to Mary, you tell the world that “my record as a proponent of more funding for our public schools is unassailable.” Bully for you. The fact that you and everybody else has failed in the quest for adequate funding (as even the State Supreme Court has acknowledged) should not lead you to abandon your progressive values.
You shouldn’t fall into the trap of scapegoating teachers for American racism and class inequality. A UW Philosophy grad like yourself should know that a teacher evaluation bill isn’t going to make a dent in the alloy of democracy for white men, capitalism, and racialized slavery that coalesced in the 18th century and created the backbone of American inequality that persists to this day
You should get out of the weeds of charter school statistics and Bellevue anecdotes and recognize that the assault on teachers’ unions has nothing to do with education and everything to do with the further erosion of public infrastructure and what few collective bargaining rights remain. Most school reform policies come from a very unprogressive playbook and most of the bills you support get their templates from ALEC.
You should recognize that public school in the United States has never been pure. The two big forces behind creating and mandating public schooling have been anti-Catholicism and child labor laws. Nineteenth-century Protestant elites, fearing that Catholic schools were creating a populace more loyal to the Pope than the President, were the driving force behind the public school system. And in the twentieth century, mandatory public schooling to the age of 16 went hand in hand with the outlawing of child labor and the need to create a warehouse for the suddenly unemployed and unruly mob of children of the laboring classes. School is as much about learning to pledge allegiance, line up, and respond to Pavlovian bells as it is about education. Teachers work in a context that is usually completely antithetical to the creativity and innovation you talk so much about. Insofar as you’re interested in public schools as something more than a factory that produces semi-skilled workers for businesses, you should focus on reforms more fundamental than busting teachers’ unions.
Maybe you should have tried to have a cup of coffee with Mary Lindquist before you made a big public show of chatting up Rob McKenna—another guy who, like you and me, doesn’t really know anything about K-12 teaching.
The WEA has its problems—it’s almost as white as you and me and it has all the usual inefficiencies that come with a big democratic organization. But the WEA is not education’s problem.
I hope you’ll consider that.
Bill Lyne
Who tried teaching high school for one year before moving on to the much less difficult job of college professor.

Monday, March 28, 2011


One of the great things about living in Washington is that we have license to be incredibly snotty about all things California. Their earthquakes are worse than ours, their vapid Hollywood culture makes Seattle look positively European, everything is more expensive there, and we all know that everyone there secretly wants to move here.
And no matter how bad our state budget gets, theirs is always worse.
So the open letter that University of California President Mark Yudof sent to all Californians in January was enough to knock us right on our smug flannel Starbucks asses. “This is a sad day for California,” President Yudof wrote. “In the budget proposed by Gov. Brown, the collective tuition payments made by University of California students for the first time in history would exceed what the state contributes to the system's general fund.”
Here in Washington, we crossed that line two years ago. Under Governor Gregoire’s proposed budget, student tuition would account for 70% of our budgets and state support would drop to 30%. And under the budgets that the state House of Representatives and Senate will be proposing soon, it will be even worse.
Under Governor Brown’s proposed budget, state funding for universities would fall to 1998 levels. Here in Washington, we are already at 1991 funding levels.
Governor Brown’s proposed budget would reduce UC per student state funding to $7210. Governor Gregoire’s proposed budget would reduce per student state funding at Western Washington University to $2900.
So think twice the next time you want to make fun of California. As bad as things are there, they are still light years ahead of us in understanding the social and economic value of public universities.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Drinking From the Public Trough

Along with whatever surprises the latest election may have brought, it did reaffirm the age-old verity that Money Talks. Various corporations spent over $36 million to defeat any measure that would have provided any new revenue to the state, and they hit a home run each time. Not the least among these corporations were the cornerstones of Washington’s economy, Boeing and Microsoft. Whatever their public rhetoric may have been, their money made a clear statement that public investment is not something they support.
This stance may make short-term bottom-line business sense, but it may also betray an alarming historical ignorance. And it may be mortgaging the corporate future of our state.
It’s not a stretch to say that Boeing and Microsoft (and all their billionaires and millionaires) wouldn’t exist as they are today without the massive investment of public funds.
The Grand Coulee Dam, built with federal money from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Public Works Administration, provided the electricity that powered the aluminum smelters in Vancouver and Longview that fed the Boeing factories in Seattle and Vancouver that churned out B-17 and B-29 bombers during World War II and B-47s and B-52s in the 1950s.
The internet, without which Microsoft’s tremendous success and phenomenal profits would never have been possible, grew in part from research done by Leonard Kleinrock, a professor at the publicly funded University of California at Los Angeles who was educated at the publicly funded Bronx High School of Science and the publicly funded City College of New York. The early infrastructure for the internet was created by the publicly funded National Science Foundation and the publicly funded United States Military.
It would be difficult to find any US private company that does not benefit every day from the investment of tax dollars in education, utilities, health care, police departments, fire departments, and social safety nets.
This is especially true for education. A broad and well-funded public education system has been the key to the competitive advantage that the United States has enjoyed in the modern world. In order to continue to grow, capitalism must do one of two things: innovate or exploit. It must either continue to come up with goods and services for which people will pay the premium that supports a decently paid work force or it must produce crap as cheaply as possible by squeezing the maximum blood, sweat, and tears from a captive and exploited work force. A strong public education system (and the political maturity and social mobility that comes with it) is the key to pushing the capitalist needle more toward innovation than exploitation.
This is why the corporate approach to education, with its emphasis on top-down, administratively driven “reform” and its neglect of funding, is so disappointing and short-sighted. When Microsoft wants to develop a new product or improve an existing one, they hire the most talented people they can find, pay them well, and try to eliminate the impediments that stand between them and innovation. They don’t try to save money with inexperienced and underpaid researchers from “Research for America” or adjunct scientists. They don’t burden their R & D people with endless evaluation and accountability exercises and they don’t fail to invest.
Washington is in the bottom five in the nation in per student investment in both K-12 and 4 year higher ed. The infrastructure that we need to produce the next Leonard Kleinrock is crumbling and desperately needs investment. And yet the companies that stand to benefit the most from that investment continue to vote against it with loads of their cash. The long-term consequence of that for Washington state is going to be less innovation and more exploitation.

Blog to Run Regular Column on Washington State Politics and Education

Editor: Because our journal and blog are published out of Washington state, we get a lot of inquiries about the politics of Washington state, legislative initiatives, union and anti-union activities, etc., around educational issues. We do have a special section on our menu called, "Educational  Updates for the State of Washington:  Political, Legal and Social Issues," but it just provides links to one time events or issues.  Our new column will be ongoing and cover issues as they are occurring.  Our blogger will be William Lyne, Professor of English at Western Washington University and also a member of our journal's editorial board.  Bill is also on the board of the Washington Education Association in Washington and is president of the United Faculty of Washington State  that represents the four regional universities in Washington that have recently unionized. 

Because our journal and its blog are international, we would be interested in hearing about issues occurring in other states and around the world on these issues.  Please enter into the conversation with a comment.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Author Bill Lyne Responds To Teachers on "Beautiful Losers"

Bill Lyne, author of the controversial (naturally) article "Beautiful Losers" in our 2008 issue on "Schooling as if Democracy Matters," met with teachers, both university and secondary, and students at Bellingham High School on February 17th, 2009, to talk about the article.

The article is one of the most thought-and-argument-provoking, that we've ever published. I disagree with some of it, and I help to edit the journal. Yet I can't help but see the wisdom of his argument. Lyne's urge to "give up hope to give up despair" created quite a stir with this group of teachers and potential teachers here at BHS. Read on to see what they said.

Bill Lyne, Bellingham High School, 2/17/09

BL: I’d like to start by saying, with some sense of humility, that I hope to learn as much from you all as you might learn from me or more. I don’t know much about teaching high school. I did it for a year and I was fired. (laughter)

This article was written in response to an article by a man named Henry Giroux, in the same issue of the JEC, and it also was in response to the topic “Schooling as if Democracy Matters.” Part of my article began with this question: is there is actually democracy to be had? The other part of the article was in response to Giroux’s notion that now is the time for us to take back our schools from what he saw as mind-numbing corporate influences. I tried to pose this question: we understand that we want to take this back to something democratic, but what are we taking it from? From Dick Cheney? What is it that he imagines us taking it to?

He poses some sort of utopian path where democratic schools are the place where liberation takes place. It seems to me that American history calls that into question. I wanted to at least complicate the idea that schools have ever been that kind of place.

In the line of work that I’m in a lot of people peg me as a professional pessimist. I go around saying “everything is bad bad bad and if you think it’s good this is really bad." So often I get this question: “What do we do?”

It seems to me there are two ways to answer that. One verges toward this kind of romantic utopian thing, you know: “we must feed the children, we must live our lives honorably.” The other answer is “really, I don’t know.” And that is the more honest answer. If you look at the history of the United States, especially under a capitalist arrangement, and if you choose to work in a place like this, or the place where I work, or any public school in this country, you must recognize that these are institutions of the state. Especially in the earlier grades, the job of institutions of the state is more about indoctrination than opening minds. It’s about teaching kids the Pledge of Alliance, Columbus discovered America, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and we used to have a race problem but we don’t anymore.

You deliver some sort of usable and marketable skills, reading and writing and arithmetic, but generally speaking, what institutions of the state, a state that is designed to create a class society, are going to do is continue to reinforce the inequalities of a class society.

Working at any public school, we have to recognize that the possibilities of genuinely or fundamentally changing the society through teaching are really pretty low.

What we’re doing is bound by those restrictions and we probably get into more trouble when we deny that than admit it. Paraphrasing James Baldwin, “We can’t possibly solve all the problems that we face, but we aren’t going to solve any of them if we don’t face them.

Now, the frustration that comes with being unable to have those answers shouldn’t be turned into, “well, those answers aren’t really there.” The first shot is to articulate. That was the problem with Henry Giroux’s article: he was imagining a history of past schools that just didn’t exist.

He gave a lot of exhortation to take back our schools, but had very little practical advice about how to do that, and very little recognition of the kinds of punishments and restrictions that would actually greet anyone who might try that.

Q: There’s a lot of research hush-hush that says that the NCLB and Title 1 and basically what we’re doing isn’t really changing the gap, but is more like obscuring the world and keeping people in misery. I’d like to think that what I do here is good for the world. And now, with this article, I’m feeling rather dejected, and that’s what’s bothering me the most.

BL: Yeah, I get that a lot.

Q: Because I do believe I’m doing good. I do believe I’m making a difference.

BL: And certainly I think that’s probably true. I think that by and large, most people who choose to take jobs where you don’t get paid very much and teach people in public schools are doing really good.

I think that absolutely everybody here in any kind of school is doing good work. The point is to recognize where that work is. We might inspire individual students. We might create opportunities for individual students. But the work that we do is not going to fundamentally rearrange the gap that you’re talking about, not in terms of the gap in access to rewards in society that are created along race lines and class lines.

Which is not to put down the goodness of the work we all do, but also not to over-imagine or over-dramatize about it.

Q: That’s discouraging, but I don’t disagree with the truth of it.

BL: You know, I like to think of myself as an upbeat and cheery guy, yet everywhere I go, people say, “wow, you’re a drag.” (laughter) I think that part of what’s been beat into us is that if we can’t, as teachers, imagine that we’re changing the world, we should feel like failures. Admitting to ourselves that “look, this is a job, it’s got certain rewards and does things for me personally and I feel like I’m helping some people,” but in terms of revolutionizing the world no, I’m not doing that,” well, that can be a liberating realization. We don’t need to feel guilty about telling that truth.

If a truly revolutionary method of teaching becomes too successful it often gets crushed. When the Black Panthers were slaughtered by the state in the 1960s, it was in response not to their guns but their schools. They were incredibly successful with a lot of their programs, many of which were later adopted by the state of California, but in terms of educating the children of black inner-city America, and educating them outside of the curriculum sanctioned by the state—well that became incredibly threatening to the state, and they had a storm of fire raining down on them.

Historically, we see the problem in changing education as an “inside-outside” thing. The metaphor for that is the voting for Ralph Nader. “I’m going to vote for Ralph Nader.” You know, it just made me the nut that my friends suspected I was.

And yet, if you can’t break the status quo and put someone like Nader in office, you must start asking what the point is of voting at all.

Well, the big difference there was that we got George Bush.

This dynamic of inside and outside is one that people in our position struggle with all the time. When I taught high school—for a year in South Central LA, the students 98% black and 2 % Hispanic, with exactly one white kid—I showed up there a freshly scrubbed white boy from the suburbs there to tell them about the history of oppression.

Well, my students knew more about that stuff from the time they were four years old than I ever could. They were actually very patient with me, you know, they said: “That’s very interesting, but right now we have to get paid. You need to teach us how to read or how to do this other job skill. It’s a white man’s world, and you have to show us how to behave in a white world so that we can survive.”

That seems to be a genuine demand to be making. “I need you to deliver to me the kind of skills that were delivered to you as a matter of your birthright that will allow me to make progress within society as it’s arranged. I do not need you to be here talking to me all day about how badly society is arranged. I’ve lived that.”

Speaking again on that whole inside-outside thing, there was one brief exciting moment where I was chair of my department at my university. For years I walked around my department saying, “When I’m chair, I’m going to do this or do that,” and within days I found myself being compromised.

That’s the world of being chair. There was a very carefully circumscribed area. And if you stepped outside of that, your ability to be effective for your department became diminished. If I started screaming about what was wrong, that just made the dean and the the other chairs stop paying attention to me and my department suffered. So I had to be there making deals within the rules.

More to come from Bill's presentation.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What is the Real Pedagogical Value of the Obama Election?

Editor: Author William Lyne, whose article, "Beautiful Losers," appears in our winter 2008 issue of the journal, updates his thoughts in light of the Obama election. We invite readers to respond to his post or to his article from our Volume 3 Number 1 Issue. Watch for the upcoming video interview with Professor Lyne in our “Talking with the Authors” section of the journal.


“I want to know, Which side is the federal government on?”

John R. Lewis, in 1963, long before he went to Congress

When Congressman Lewis shifted his support from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the Democratic primaries, he said that he realized he had been on the wrong side of history. And certainly the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is historic.

Obama is generationally, geographically, and philosophically not of the Civil Rights or Black Power movements. The most visible claims he has on neighborhood or movement street cred come from his wife and his former preacher. There was a telling moment at Obama’s first press conference after the election. The reporter who stood up to ask the obligatory “What kind of dog are you gonna get the kids?” question had her arm in a sling. Obama asked her what had happened and she said that she had hurt herself in the crowd in Grant Park on election night. Obama quickly reassured everybody that hers was probably the only injury in the park that night. Forty years earlier, Grant Park had been the site where police had arrested, beaten, and gassed demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention. Almost reflexively, Obama was doing what he had done throughout his campaign—letting people know that, while he might occasionally reach for the rhetorical figures of Martin Luther King or allude to Rosa Parks, he was not Bobby Seale, he was not the kind of Black president who was going to make the kinds of demands of a racist country that could lead to any kind of conflict. You needed a ticket to get into his Grant Park party.

And yet, once we get past the new president’s diasporic, multi-racial, and politically centrist identity, it is clear that personally he owes a great, great debt to the movements he distanced himself from and the hundreds of years of African American resistance, tenacity, and struggle that came before them. This guy is hard and he’s cool, an inheritor of Black American traditions that began with the Middle Passage. While every other politician in the presidential race (including Obama’s future running mate and his new Secretary of State) regularly put their foot in their mouth, some of them on a daily basis, Obama slipped up maybe twice. And one of those times, the time he talked about the people who express their internalizing of ruling class ideology by clinging to their god and their guns, he was both gracefully alliterative and right. The Obama campaign had a sleek, unsentimental discipline that was more reminiscent of the Tuskegee Airmen or the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment than it was of a U.S. mainstream political party. In order to beat the very formidable white structures of the Clinton machine and the Republican party, in order to succeed as a Black man in a very white institutional setting, Barack Obama had to be twice as good, three times as smart, and infinitely harder than anyone else. And he owes much of his ability to be all that to the many thousands gone before him in African American freedom struggles.

But as president, he’s not likely to end up much different from the rest of them. Sure, he will openly violate the constitution far less than Dick Cheney has, he won’t be the televised train wreck that Bush is, and he probably won’t have a weakness for blowjobs in the Oval Office. It will be refreshing to have a president who is thoughtful and smart and more competent staff will run government agencies and various social policies will move more toward the center. But at the end of the day, he’ll still be a president. And in our current political arrangements, no one gets within sniffing distance of a legitimate shot at the presidency without fully committing to the job description of steward of ruling class interests.

The only slim chance of genuine systemic change lies with the new electorate that played such a large role in Obama’s election. The millions of new voters who made Virginia and North Carolina blue and Karl Rove’s politics of hate irrelevant could not have been turned out without the reinvigorated infrastructures of various progressive political movements in this country that would not have worked as hard for any other candidate. The question now is, Will those movements who made Obama possible hold him accountable? And the answer is probably not. The energy that could bring real change began to dissipate in all those cathartic, teary celebrations on election night. Mardi Gras festivals are for letting the steam out of revolutionary engines. Instead of organizing in a forceful way to put real change on the table, the Obama electorate is punching its information into Obama databases, turning its eyes toward a symbol and chanting slogans of hope. And doing this in the face of overwhelming evidence that the new administration is going to be about business as usual. There is not one genuinely progressive or different face on any of the Obama teams. Eight years from now, we won’t still be fighting hopelessly stupid wars, but we will still have an imperialist and oppressive foreign policy. Health care will be a little bit more accessible, but it will still be driven by profit and millions will still not have it. There will be more jobs but they won’t be good ones. The bankers and CEOs will have retreated from their current embarrassment back to their corporate jets and private dining rooms. And in the genuinely immiserated regions of capital, the difference between Bush and Obama will not be noticeable.

So if the Obama election is going to have any pedagogical value at all, we must ground it in specific discussions of real American history, not a lot of empty blather about democracy, possibility, and hope. Instead of dumb liberal platitudes about transcending race, we should talk about the specific African American traditions, movements, and ancestors that made Barack Obama possible. We should put the Obama phenomenon in the context of slavery and rebellion, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the Black Radical Tradition around the world. We should teach about American political power outside of individuals, charisma, and personality, showing that Barack Obama isn’t going to lead us to the promised land any more than Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. And we should cast some light on the genuinely progressive movements that made Barack Obama possible and will inevitably be further undone by him. We need to clearly delineate what the sides are and show just exactly which side the federal government is on. John Lewis crossed over to the wrong side of history when he left SNCC for the DNC. Leaving the Clinton band to comp for Barack Obama didn’t get him back.