Jennifer Berkshire Reports on Her Trip to Van Wert, Ohio, with Betsy and Randi

Jennifer Berkshire, once known as EduShyster, raised the money to follow Betsy and Randi to Van Wert, Ohio.

This is a powerful article and a first-hand report. I hope you will read it in full.

Here is her perceptive report on the trip, what she saw, what she learned.

Clearly, Randi and the local educators wanted her to see wonderful public schools where students were happily engaged in learning. Perhaps she might think twice about the budget cuts that the Trump administration is set to inflict, even on those who voted for him, like the good people of Van Wert. Maybe she would hesitate to harm them. Maybe she might advocate for them.

When the two leaders visited the elementary schools, the fifth grade students were learning about the Great Depression, and how awful it was for people who lost their jobs and their futures because of decisions made by bankers far away. The parallels with the present are unavoidable.

Jennifer couldn’t help noting that Betsy DeVos and Trump want to roll back all the laws and regulations that were created to prevent another Depression and to protect ordinary people from the predatory malefactors of great wealth.

The tour’s next stop was the fifth grade classroom of Nate Hoverman, a Van Wert grad, whose students have spent weeks working on a project-based learning unit about how kids experienced the Great Depression. On this day, the students were reading an excerpt from Russell Freedman’s Children of the Great Depression about how the economic crisis crippled schools across the country.

Out of work and out of money, people couldn’t pay the taxes that paid for their schools. Schools closed down or shortened their school years and teachers everywhere were laid off, which meant huge classes for the students who still had schools to go to. In Chicago, teachers, who hadn’t been paid for months, joined with parents and students and marched on the city’s banks, demanding that the bankers loan the city enough money to pay their salaries. When some of the teachers occupied the banks, the cops moved in. Freedman cites a newspaper report: “In a moment, unpaid policemen were cracking their clubs against the heads of unpaid school teachers.”

The timing of the reading was a coincidence, Hoverman told me. The students had started the unit reading the acclaimed novel Bud, Not Buddy, about an orphan making his way in Flint, MI in 1936, but they wanted to know more about the “why” behind the story. Still, it would be hard to conjure up a more fitting frame for our present precipice. For DeVos and her peeps, this was the period of American history when the nation went pear-shaped, the government using its might on behalf of working people like it never had before. The regulatory state was born, the unions were newly powerful, and those students who marched through the streets of Chicago with their teachers grew up to become Democrats with a deep distrust of the free market.

Both DeVos’ own family and the one she married into were part of the business-led crusade to roll back the New Deal’s accomplishments that began practically as soon as the New Deal did. Seven decades later, the fever dream of low taxes, little regulation and shriveled public services may finally be at hand.

Jennifer goes on to describe the heavy hand of ALEC behind the choice movement, not only to demolish public schools, but to lower the wages of construction workers. And the heavy and successful lobbying for cyber charters, which have terrible results but are very adept at getting more and more taxpayer money with no accountability for students or performance or finances.

Jennifer met a local education activist, Brianne Kramer, who had taught at one of the online schools and knew how dreadful they are. She asked her the question: where is this leading?

She answered without missing a beat.

“They don’t believe in the idea of common schools because they don’t believe in the common good,” said Kramer.

Kramer and I were meeting for the first time. A friend of hers from the Bad Ass Teachers Association had alerted her that I was heading to this corner of Ohio, and here we were 36 hours later, discussing the future of public education in the Buckeye State over biscuits and broasted chicken (a thing!) at a Bob Evans. Kramer has become something of an expert on the influence of ALEC in Ohio. Last year, she testified before the Senate Finance Committee in favor of a bill that would have subjected the state’s notoriously awful virtual schools to more oversight. Her testimony is well worth watching, but make sure you stick around for the Q and A portion, when Senator Bill Coley, ALEC’s Ohio state chairman and a veritable ambassador for ECOT, interrogates Kramer and makes the case for why virtual schooling is the best kind of schooling. The bill never made it out of committee.

I needed Kramer to help me understand the endgame for public education in a state like Ohio. Her vision was bleak enough to make me wish that Bob Evans served alcohol. She thinks that the controversial plan to blow up the Youngstown schools, hatched with charter school lobbyists and Catholic school groups, and passed under cover of darkness in 2015, is likely a model for how the GOP plans to break up and sell off other school districts throughout the state. It sounds conspiratorial until you consider that the chair of the House Education Committee has called for doing just that: “sell[ing] off the existing buildings, equipment and real estate to those in the private sector.”

Kramer says that she can envision a not-so-distant future in which online schools will be the only option for Ohio’s low-income students; anyone with the means will attend private and religious schools. “The people pushing this agenda don’t want a common good where everyone has a fair chance. A common good requires that you give citizens the tools they need to operate within the framework of democracy,” Kramer told me. “Everything that’s happening in Ohio is aimed at undermining that notion.”

The only good news is that Trump supporters seem as unhappy about that as do public education advocates.

from sarah


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