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Extended: Democratic Candidates Focus on Public Education at Forum with Civil Rights & Labor Groups

Web ExclusiveDecember 17, 2019
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Ahead of the last Democratic presidential debate of the year this Thursday, seven candidates appeared Saturday at the historic Democratic Presidential Forum on Public Education in Pittsburgh, an event organized by public education organizations, unions, civil rights organizations and community groups. We play highlights from the forum and get response from Keron Blair, director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools in Atlanta; Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance; and Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education Action. She recently authored a report titled “Still Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Results in a Pileup of Fraud and Waste.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Ahead of the last Democrat presidential debate of the year this Thursday in Los Angeles, seven candidates appeared Saturday at a historic Democratic Presidential Forum on Public Education in Pittsburgh, an event organized by public education groups, unions, civil rights groups.

Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests. In Atlanta, Georgia, Keron Blair is director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. In Chicago, Jitu Brown is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance. And in New York, Carol Burris is executive director of the Network for Public Education Action, who recently authored a report titled “Still Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Results in a Pileup of Fraud and Waste.” I spoke with them and asked them about this forum, that didn’t get very much attention. We began in Atlanta with Keron Blair and asked him how they organized the forum and what he felt was so critical.

KERON BLAIR: Good morning, Amy. It is so good to be with you.

I should say that, you know, as the director of the Alliance, we pulled together a number of groups, including the folks who are joining me — the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Network for Public Education. And we all put time and staff and energy into making this forum possible. For us, it is historic, because it is one of the first times in recent memory where public education was at the center of the conversation with folks who are looking to be president. The idea for this forum emerged months ago, after we worked together to actually introduce the Keep Our PACT Act. And folks had a meeting where we said, “Given the importance of this issue, we need to figure out how we raise education to the national level and really get folks on the record on the issues that we care about.” And so, for months, folks have been working, pulling together resources, staff, relationships.

And Saturday was phenomenal on a lot of levels, because what we had, again, we had parents, we had students, we had educators, we had education professionals, we had school staff, we had higher ed advocates, in one room, under one big tent, naming the issues we cared about, like investment in public schools, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, ending the privatization and charter movement, deepening our commitment to racial justice and the infrastructure and what we know is required to make learning possible. And so, we are happy to have been a part of that and happy to have joined partners in labor, on the community side, parents, students, school staff, in making this event possible.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn back to the moderator, Rehema Ellis, asking Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren about charter schools.

RAHEMA ELLIS: Right now the majority of children who find themselves in public charter schools are minority children, are black and brown children. Some parents of those black and brown children say, “What do I do while I wait for my public school to get up to speed to provide my child with the kind of academic excellence that they deserve?” What do you say to those parents who are looking for that public charter school option?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, I’ve met with many parents and grandparents who have put their children in public charter schools. And I have no doubt about the sincerity of their efforts to educate their children. And they’re looking for the best educational opportunity they can find. I believe that. But I believe that it is our responsibility as a nation, and will be my responsibility as president of the United States, to make certain that every public school is an excellent public school.

RAHEMA ELLIS: Yes, that’s future-oriented. We’ve been trying to do that for years. We’ve been spending billions of dollars in education reform in this country for decades, and we are not there yet in terms of the academic excellence. You know what the Nation’s Report Card just came out and said — 


RAHEMA ELLIS: — in terms of our students being able to read in fourth and eighth grade.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I’m not — I’m not proposing cutting funding for children who are currently in charter schools. I believe that for-profit charter schools should be closed, but that’s a different issue. I also believe that all charter schools should have to meet exactly the same requirements that all other public schools have to meet.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Massachusetts senator, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Carol Burris is with us, who was also at the forum on Saturday, executive director of the Network for Public Education Action, who recently released the report, “Still Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Results in a Pileup of Fraud and Waste.” She previously served as the principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre School District in Long Island, New York. Prior to being a principal, she was a teacher at both the middle and high school level. So, this issue of charter schools divides the Democrats. Respond to what Senator Warren said, and then what you have found.

CAROL BURRIS: Yeah. I mean, I think Senator Warren is right on target. And it’s been a shame because the advocates of charter schools misrepresent her position. They keep saying that she’s trying to cut off funding. That is not anybody’s position, that I know of, to cut off funding for present charter schools, whether it be state funding or federal funding.

But there is a real concern — it was expressed by the NAACP, it’s been expressed by our organization and also by some of the leading candidates — that the continued proliferation of charter schools without real reform is becoming a national problem. And the Federal Charter Schools Program has been complicit in all of this, especially under Betsy DeVos. The Charter Schools Program has spent over $4 billion starting new charter schools all over the nation. What we found in our report was that a lot of the money goes to charter schools that don’t even open, ghost schools. Hundreds of millions of dollars also go to charter schools that open and then close, some within a matter of just a few years, some longer. So, the program has been very veiled.

And what we are doing is we are digging deep into the data. And all of the evidence that we have shows that about a billion dollars has been wasted on charter schools that have not opened or that have closed. At the same time, we see a lot of fraud. We see a lot of problems with mismanagement. We see a lot of turmoil from schools that open and then close. And we see a tremendous amount of drained resources from our public schools and our community schools that need the funding the most.

So, what Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are advocating for is — you know, and the NAACP — is: “Hey, let’s take a pause at this. Let’s take a look.” Our position at the Network for Public Education is: Let’s make charter schools true public schools. Let’s have boards of charter schools elected by the people, instead of, very often, being boards that are composed of millionaires.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the presidential candidates, especially, here, the Dems, who are divided on this issue of charter schools? Whose proposal did you like the best, or what number of them, on Saturday, if any?

CAROL BURRIS: Yeah, well, you know, there wasn’t as much spoken about as I would have liked, but we did get little hints. We certainly know that Michael Bennet is full square in favor of charter schools.

AMY GOODMAN: And Michael Bennet’s history in education?

CAROL BURRIS: He was the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, where he really instituted a lot of the Race to the Top reforms, that have now been abandoned by the Democratic Party.

We were very happy and surprised to hear Joe Biden talk about that he would like to see Betsy DeVos and her charter schools, as well as her policies on sexual harassment, go. That was — that was a first.

Mayor Pete says that he’s against for-profit charter schools, and we find that to be very disingenuous. The only state that has for-profit charter schools is the state of Arizona. Now, many states allow for-profit management organizations to operate their charter schools. He has yet to come out and say that he is against that. That is part of Elizabeth Warren’s platform, and also Bernie Sanders’.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Jitu Brown into this conversation. He’s speaking to us from Chicago, though he was there on Saturday at the Education Presidential Forum. He’s national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance. Can you respond to what you felt was most noteworthy about this historic public forum, where a number of the Democratic presidential candidates laid out their education programs, what you found inspiring and what you found lacking, Jitu?

JITU BROWN: Yes, ma’am. So, first, Amy, thank you for having me. I appreciate you always being a platform for justice and a place where our voices can be heard. So, thank you for the work you do and for having me this morning.

The first thing I will say is the fact that it happened was a major victory, the fact that Democratic presidential hopefuls had to speak to the breadth of the education justice movement. You know, unfortunately, corporate media, in their laziness, always says that teacher unions are leading the way. But if we really know what’s happening on the ground, often the tip of the spear are community groups, parent organizations, student organizations, who are cutting the issue at a very grassroots level, in particular around issues of racial justice.

So, young people that have been fighting against assaults by school resource officers are the ones who have led the fight to put regulations in place to protect students’ civil rights. Community groups that have fought against the closing of our schools and fought against the sabotage of public education have often been the tip of the spear in saying that school closings happens in certain communities. The question of equity, as opposed to only funding, was a community-driven initiative, where — and so you saw the name of the forum, “Equity and Opportunity for All.” So, I think the breadth of the education justice movement was heard this night, on Saturday, and I think that was important. So that was inspiring to me.

The fact that you had, in the beginning, Keron Blair setting the tone for the event, [John] Jackson from Schott, Angel Gober from One PA setting the tone of the event, but then you also had Lily García from the NEA, Randi Weingarten from the AFT, Derrick Johnson from the NAACP and myself frame event for the audience, for people to understand why this moment was so important. So, those things were important to me.

I think — and it speaks to the growth of this emerging education justice movement across the United States. I know, as being with the Journey for Justice Alliance, that people are fighting for education justice all over the country. Young people in Camden, New Jersey, organized a 1,600-student walkout to protect their teachers. Young people in Chicago, Illinois, are organizing to make sure that there are more counselors in the school than police officers. Parents in Oakland, California, are fighting school closings. Parents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are organizing to win community schools. Parents and educators and community members in Chicago put the demand for 20 sustainable community schools in the teacher union’s contract and won five years of funding for 20 sustainable community schools in the city of Chicago. I can go on, all over the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to Davonte Johnson of Detroit Action for a New Economy. This is Johnson questioning Senator Bernie Sanders.

DAVONTE JOHNSON: Today, I come to tell you that I never felt safe with police in my school. Since 1994, because of the crime bill, more than $1 billion have been spent on putting police into schools. So, Senator Sanders, my question to you is: Are you committed to ending the school-to-prison pipeline and ensuring — and ensuring that black and brown students both feel safe and welcome in their school? And if so, how?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Absolutely, I am committed. And that is one of my highest priorities. We have a criminal justice system, in general, which is not only broken, but it is racist. We have more people in jail than any other country on Earth, including China, four times our size. So we have a long proposal on criminal justice. But one of the aspects of it is that if you want to keep people out of jail, then you invest in education, you invest in jobs, rather than more jails and incarceration.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Sanders’ response. Jitu Brown, your response to what Senator Sanders said, and the overall issue and the position of all these candidates?

JITU BROWN: So, I think that the issue of equity is critical. And inequity rears its head not only in course offerings, it also rears its head in regards to how discipline is administered in school. If you view children as precious, if you view them as viable human beings, then you will treat them as such. If they struggle, you will counsel them. You will find out what their problem is, and then you’ll help to alleviate it. If you view children through a racist lens, then you will look at a 5- and 6-year-old, and you’d be willing to suspend that 5- and 6-year-old. You’d be willing to police those children as opposed to understand them.

And so, I think that Senator Sanders has moved, as many Democrats have moved, in the right direction in regards to this question of student discipline. We know that black children are suspended five times as much as their white counterparts for the same infractions. And, Amy, this gets to a point, some 65 years after the passage of Brown v. Board, we have not honored that mandate. And so, the reason why we have pushed the issue of equity, because we’ve done everything but equity. We’ve done virtual schools. We’ve done zero-tolerance policies. We’ve done storefront schools, storefront charter schools, charter schools in the basement of churches, alternative schools — everything but facing our ugly, which is that we have a system that views black and brown children through the lens of hate. And that’s the sickness. Our children are not the problem. The problem is that racism that infects public policy.

So, the fact that Bernie Sanders has moved on the issue of privatization, where he was not on the right side four years ago — Elizabeth Warren has moved, now Mayor Pete is attempting to adjust his platform — speaks to the strength of our collective organizing, parents, young people and educators working together to say that we want a education platform that is rooted in racial justice and rooted in equity. And so, I think that is a sign that we are moving in the right direction. Just because we had the candidates there, that is just the beginning of the work. We’re going to have to hold whoever goes into the White House accountable. But the fact that we were able to get them there and begin to move them in the right direction, because the failure to implement the mandate of Brown v. Board is a bipartisan failure.

I’ll say one other thing. People complain about Betsy DeVos. But if there was no Arne Duncan, there would be no Betsy DeVos. What is the difference between the two of them, except vouchers? Arne Duncan was just as unqualified as Betsy DeVos was. But —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is very interesting, your raising Arne Duncan now again. Wasn’t he the superintendent of the Chicago schools, where you’re based? And, of course, he was the education secretary under President Obama.

JITU BROWN: Absolutely. He was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools without ever being a classroom teacher, without ever being an administrator. Arne — if you really want to know the — I know our time is limited; I will share it with you like this. Paul Vallas, in 1995, instituted the get-tough-on-schools mandates that began to judge schools according to their test scores and then — and to implement punitive interventions if they didn’t reach those test scores. Arne Duncan was the face that was palatable to the public. So he made school closings and school privatization acceptable, because this was a guy that was supposed to be progressive. He hung out with Common, you know, and things of that nature. So he made it acceptable. But he destabilized schools in the city of Chicago. Schools closed that were actually improving schools in the city of Chicago. And then he got promoted for it. And so, we know now that only one out of five charters outperform traditional public schools. We know this, no matter how much they talk about math gains in this school or that school. We know that only one out of five outperform traditional public schools. That’s part of his legacy.

And I will close with this. If you’re a quarterback — I’m a football guy. I’m from Chicago, so I’ve suffered under Jay Cutler for a long time. Jay Cutler had one of the greatest arms in the National Football League. He could throw a football 80 yards. But half of his passes were intercepted. Now, if the passes that were caught were beautiful spirals, what mattered if 75% of his passes were incomplete? The charter industry has a failure rate of 75%. Only one out of five of their schools outperform traditional public schools. And the ones that outperform traditional public schools have questions in regards to their enrollment policies and how they push young people out. So, the industry needs checking. And that was definitely part of Arne Duncan’s legacy. So I think Democrats have to step up to the plate. That’s the point. It’s been a bipartisan failure of the mandate of equity.

AMY GOODMAN: Jitu Brown, can you talk about the role of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and its involvement with the privatization of education?

JITU BROWN: Yes, ma’am. And you may have heard during the forum we made the point that, you know, that as a community organizer, I have a lot more in common with an educator than I do a hedge funder. And so, yes, where we agree, we work with teachers’ unions. We don’t agree on everything. But where we agree, we find alignment, and we work together. But what often happens in the mainstream media is that if you stand with teachers, there’s a lot being made about the fact that you work with unions, and they try to paint you as some type of union hack. Well, I come from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, and we were in the privatization fight before the Chicago Teachers Union knew there was a privatization fight. So, no, that is a faulty argument.

But no one raises the question about: Where are these people? Who are all these billionaires who all of a sudden care about black and brown children in the United States? Where are all these billionaires who all of a sudden — who are all these billionaires who all of a sudden care about civil rights and equity, but they create structures that eliminate public voice even more, eliminate accountability to the public even more?

So, no, organizations like ALEC are designed to push a legislative agenda that destroys public education — and, actually, not only destroys public education, but destroys basic quality-of-life institutions in black and brown communities around the United States, which is why, in just about every city where the charter industry has taken root, we have seen the black population diminish. We can go to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Oakland, Cleveland. I can go on and on. And so, we understand that the school privatization movement is inextricably linked to school — to gentrification, to the purge of black and brown people from America’s cities. And so, I think that the public has to be a lot more critical in regards to who these people are that are all of a sudden saying they care about our civil rights, but they don’t care about our democracy. So, that’s why in the Eli Broad Institute, one of the things they talk about, where they train the superintendents that come and close our schools — one of the things they talk about is that a necessary ingredient for school reform is the elimination of elected school boards. The elimination of elected school boards. So this is all about eliminating our voice and removing us from these spaces.

So, we knew that in Chicago as early as 2004, that it was not — when they tried to close 20 out of the 22 schools in my neighborhood, in the Bronzeville community, 10 minutes from downtown Chicago, right off the lakefront, the same proximity from downtown as the former Cabrini-Green housing projects. If you go where the former Cabrini-Green housing projects used to sit, there’s no — there’s no even sign that we ever lived there. It’s a completely different community. The only reason we’re still in Kenwood-Oakland is because we’ve organized to stay there. We fought like wet cats to stop gentrification, so that we can still have a base in that community. So, school closings is nothing more — and the charter movement, which is basically temporary education institutions, is about nothing more than the removal of these different populations from urban spaces.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Keron Blair, I want to, finally, ask you, in Atlanta — you, whose group, Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, you, who is the key force here in organizing this forum: Did anything surprise you? And how are you following up, in this last minute we have?

KERON BLAIR: So, again, you know, just to be clear in terms of the the organizing of this forum, this was pulled together by community groups, labor unions, civil rights groups, student groups. And while the Alliance was a part of it, our role was to, again, you know, weave these groups together and to inform the policy agenda.

I do think one of the things that is noteworthy about this event — and we’ve said it a number of times — is that it was, for us, an indication that, while not entirely, the tides are shifting, right? Eight years ago, we would have been the groups on the outside, because the privatization movement, the charterization agenda had really taken a foothold within progressive conversations about public education. This time around, Democratic candidates had to come and engage with parents and students, educators, school staff, education professionals, and lay out an agenda, much of which pushes back against the privatization movement, much of which push back against charters as the answer, and much of which called for a deeper and more profound investment in public education, in public schools, in our teachers, in our parents, in our school staff. And for us and for me, that was both a surprise, but it was also an indication of the fact that our movement is growing and that more and more people have been won over to our side of the debate, and that parents and students and educators organizing together can in fact win and are in fact winning.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Burris, final word?

CAROL BURRIS: What we saw on Saturday was such a profound shift than what I went through in my last years of the principalship, a reform movement that literally just made me want to retire, and retire a lot earlier than I would have. And that is, public schools are no longer seen as the enemy. Public schools are no longer seen as the cause of poverty, where three great teachers in a row can cure it. Finally, the voices of Journey for Justice, of AROS, of the NAACP, of the Network for Public Education are being heard.

And as Senator Warren said, we’ve never fully funded education. How about we try that now? What’s happened over the years is that the agenda has been dominated by billionaires. The agenda has been dominated by ALEC in the background as they push legislation throughout the states. And finally, we believe the Democratic Party is coming home and recognizing Democratic voices, voices of folks like Jitu, voices of folks like Keron, who are on the ground in our cities and who are seeing what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education Action, speaking to us here in New York; Jitu Brown of Journey for Justice Alliance from Chicago; and Keron Blair, speaking to us from Atlanta, with the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, who helped to organize the historic forum on Saturday in Pittsburgh called Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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