A Letter to Pres. Obama from the SOS March

Former CPS President Ruth Rodriguez had hoped to be able to deliver this speech to those at the Save Our Schools March. Here’s what those who were there missed:

It’s heartwarming being in the presence of so many great educators and families at this momentous “Rally” in the heart of our nation’s capital. I feared that the takeover of our public schools by a bunch of greedy businessmen will continue unchallenged. And so, in the midst of this massive demonstration, I feel energized, I feel ready to carry on, and carry on I will until our public schools are truly democratic institutions; therefore Mr. President, here is my message to you:

President Obama,

This Mr. President is what we ask you to consider today!

In 1981 President Reagan made an unprecedented move of firing all the air traffic controllers. This was seen by many as highly hypocritical, since at that time the United States was lending its moral and financial support to the workers union movement in Poland, while tearing down the rights of workers here at home. Reagan did this without taking the time to listen to the serious concerns the controllers had about the challenging working conditions they were being subjected. Since then air travel safety has never been the same; and we have all paid dearly. Now, 30 years later, your administration through your Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan has made teachers and their union the target. Instead of offering his support, Mr. Duncan publicly rejoiced in the midst of the firing of all the teachers at a Rhode Island public school. Your administration has shown little or no respect for teachers, students and families, especially when you won’t listen to us, when you refuse to sit down and have an honest conversation about what really goes on in the classroom. Instead, you have made a pact with the corporate sector, the same greedy people responsible for ruining our economy. What Reagan did 30 years ago signaled the beginning of a move by our government to privatize the public sector. But in an Obama presidency, I trusted that you believed in the concept of strengthening our democracy; not in the selling out to Corporate America. I quote from your Colorado speech on improving education, which may be time to fire your Secretary since your message contradicts what he’s promoting:

You said,

“… I’ll tell you what’s wrong with No Child Left Behind. Forcing our teachers, our principals and our schools to accomplish all of this without the resources they need is wrong. Promising high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leaving the support and the pay for those teachers behind is wrong. Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong. We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind. We must provide the funding we were promised, give our states the resources they need and finally meet our commitment to special education. We also need to realize that we can meet high standards without forcing teachers and students to spend most of the year preparing for a single, high-stakes test. Recently, 87 percent of Colorado teachers said that testing was crowding out subjects like music and art. But we need to look no further than MESA to see that accountability does not need to come at the expense of a well-rounded education. It can help complete it — and it should.”

And so Mr. President, we want to know, how long will you allow the stubbornly continuation of Mr. Duncan’s failed policy of high-stake testing, school closings, charter conversations and “turnarounds schools” in our nation’s public school system; a failed policy that has become the Secretary’s signature legacy? Arne Duncan’s closing of schools in Chicago to turn them into Charters was a huge failure. Now you are allowing him to take that failure nationwide. You’ve placed yourselves apart from reputable educators as being the leaders of the nation’s public schools whose legacy will be known as the “dismantling of democratic neighborhood public schools” in order to hand them over to the private greedy billionaire white boys club.

With all due respect, President Obama, your policies are making a mockery of our democracy, and to the democratic values we hold so dear. When you insist on pursuing the privatization of our public schools with little or no regards to the concerns of teachers, students and families, you show a lack of faith in our community’s ability to work with you in finding real solutions, and instead you are trusting the private sector and handed over the education of our children to the same corporate moguls and politicians that have shown that they cannot take care of their own business, never mind the education of our precious children.

You have already stated, “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) is a mandate that needs serious fixing, but, Mr. President, the “Race To The Top” (RTTT) is not the solution; in fact it makes things worse. These mandates are responsible for many districts to implement standards that are leaving many children behind. We’ve seen the devastating effects of high stake testing, especially in the neediest communities. The huge gap of resources between affluent and working class communities continues to rise, especially in urban districts. The dropout rate for Black/Latino students is morally unacceptable, and it’s clear that these mandates have failed to address this issue. In Massachusetts, Latino students are dropping out of schools in high numbers. Recent studies show that the age for dropping out, in some cases is as early as the fifth grade. A large number of dropouts end up in the prison system. So, if you’re looking for blame for the dire state of the economy, just look to the discrepancy between the costs of incarceration, which is 60K per inmate a year, in contrast to about 13K for educating a child.

In light of these challenges, we come today with determination to let you know that we will not sit idly while poor White, Native American, Black and Latino students continue to receive an unequal education that is leaving the majority behind. The education apartheid in our public schools system must be addressed by you and immediately eradicated. The mandates and conditions forced by you to entice school districts into accepting federal monies under RTTT only serve to increase the pervasive actions by many districts for more test prepping and in extreme cases for cheating by administrators fearful of losing the funding, and/or of having their school closed by the state (You need only to look at what is happening in Atlanta and many other cities).

It will also increase a common practice by some Charter schools leaders to return to the district those students they deem unprepared to past the test, so they can appear to be high performing schools. Once again, with all due respect, Mr. President, let me remind you that your formula for improving our schools is flawed. I have compared it to you coming into my home, breaking my fine china, and then asking me to pay you so that you can replace the dishes, with the pretext that you know what’s best for me. Your policies and the neglect of resources particular in urban districts, is one of the many causes for the breakdown of our schools. As a result of this breakdown your business partners have fabricated excuses to highjack them claiming that since our schools are failing, then it’s up to their business model to fix them, yes, a business model that almost brought our economy to its knees.

Prior to the so-called education reform of the ’90s, there was a concerted momentum in school improvements, especially visibly were improvements in programs for ELL and Special Ed. students. The strength of these improvements laid in the integral active role played by highly involved parents and a committed community, as well as dedicated teachers who have taken their vocation extremely serious while performing their job under very challenging circumstances. But, in the midst of all these challenges the business sector–instead of supporting educators– found a way to profit from public schools funds. They have wasted no time in launching their campaign of targeting students, teachers and their union.

In God’s name, Mr. President, can you stop this train wreck? Time has ran out for many of our youths, and it continues to run out for many of our present youths, but I am hopeful that you will do the right thing and change the course of this speeding train before it derails. We sincerely request that you take the time to listen to the teachers who are at the front line of our children’s education, and to the communities that put their trust in us, and that in God’s name you will not ignore the vast research findings, showing that the direction we’re going will not lead us to real success!

In conclusion, I want to make the following recommendations:

  • The next time you go to Boston or any urban city, please plan to visit those schools that have been unfairly identified as underperforming. Learn what else is happening in these schools besides test-prepping.
  • Plan to hold town-hall meetings with devoted teachers, students, and families and hear what they have to say. (You have already listened to the business sector and the politicians)
  • Take a tour of our prisons across the country to interview the large numbers of incarcerated youths who have dropped out of schools, especially those youths who’ve failed the test! (The Honorable Leslie Harris, Suffolk County Juvenile Court Justice and retired Juvenile Court Judge Luis G. Perez in MA can provide you with some real life stories)
  • And finally, Mr. President, we know what good schools look like, they are always the schools that have adequate resources, the teachers are well respected and supported, and families are given the tools and the opportunity to become equal partners in the governance of their school. These schools–like the ones you and other politicians send their children to– make sure they provide children healthy and unprocessed foods, are not tied to test scores, and their funds are provided by donors who trust the educators to use them for the purpose of teaching and learning without submitting them to conditions based on their business model.

    — Ruth Rodriguez