Do public school advocates have the will to fight Trump? Open question.

Trump and DeVos

A few days after the United States Senate confirmed the appointment of an avowed enemy of public education–Betsy DeVos–to be the nation’s education secretary, advocates of public education held a conference in New Brunswick to search for some reason for hope. The meeting’s organizers, including members and staff of such pro-public education groups as the Education Law Center and Save Our Schools, depicted the election later this year of a new governor to replace Chris Christie as an opportunity–as, indeed, it is.

Christie, after all, shares DeVos’s views of a privately operated but publicly funded system  of education and was one of  a handful of governors to endorse her appointment by President Donald Trump. He called her choice “inspired.”

What was not inspirational, however, was the response of the New Jersey advocates–good, right-thinking people all, with whom I have little argument. Except one–why can’t they be as aggressive in promoting a system of free, inclusive, integrated, fully-funded independent public schools as Trump is in destroying it?

The title of the conference was “New Jersey Education Policy Agenda for the Next Gubernatorial Administration.” I could not stay for afternoon sessions on testing and training, but I did listen to discussions of school funding, charters, governance, and accountability. I was disheartened by what I heard.

Part of the problem is that, among this group of advocates–and others, including the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union–Phil Murphy is the heir apparent for what passes for progressivism in New Jersey politics.  Yet Murphy–like Jon Corzine, a Goldman-Sachs alumnus–has said virtually nothing about public education and his message is as inspiring and thought-provoking as a lecture on lawn mowing.

Trump and DeVos want to turn public education upside down and shake out all the money from its pockets so it can flow to corporate managers. We know that. What will Murphy do? What do these advocates want done?

It’s not as if the problems aren’t known. Bruce Baker, the Rutgers professor who is probably the smartest and most cutting critic of state educational policy, warned both about the regressive nature of school funding under Christie–and the growing acceptance of the segregating effects of charter schools, privately-operated, public-funded schools that help frightened parents run away from public schools.

“We’ve lost momentum on the idea that pubic schools should be inclusive,” he said. “They”–the critics of public schools–“are making the opposite argument and they are winning.”

In short, the fundamental idea that public schools are and should be  engines of equality and diversity is losing support.

And how will it be restored? Baker and others–including Theresa Luhm of the Education Law Center (ELC)–were not hopeful. No, it’s not that they were pessimistic–they were all hopeful the last eight years of Christie’s contempt for public education could be reversed. But they also warned that any effort to rewrite school funding laws were inherently dangerous because they invited political interference in the pursuit of true equity. Better to leave well enough alone and tinker with the edges.

Like Phil Murphy’s expected candidacy, this is simply not enough. Something akin to a political tsunami has occurred that is about to wash away public education as we know it and something more than the restoration of the Bourbons to public education is needed.

Participants in the conference danced around the danger of charters–but they are starving public schools. Yet even charter critics like Mark Weber–better known as the blogger Jersey Jazzman–offered palliatives when, in fact, bulldozers are needed. Charters suspend and expel 20 to 30 times more students than do public schools, a good way of enhancing their student test results, and such behavior raises serious moral as well as political issues.

Charters are cancers. There are no good cancers–and charter schools are metastasizing throughout education.

Mary Bennett, a former Newark high school principal,  spoke about governance–specifically the return of local control to the Newark schools. But she neglected to mention that the path to local control was impeded, not by the will of the Newark people willing to fight for their schools, but by the unfortunate deal cut between Christie and Mayor Ras Baraka to end criticism of Christie’s policies in the city, including the vast expansion–doubling in ten years–of charter school enrollment.

Baraka, in short, impeded the pace of a return to local control and now takes credit for expediting it. The dangers public schools face now cannot allow such delusional political thinking–the enemies in Washington are too real and too powerful.

In the audience, Newark activist Roberto Cabanas pointed out the obvious: If the people of Newark just waited out Christie’s term, local control would be returned in 2018 when he leaves–even if Baraka had lost to pro-charter Shavar Jeffries in the 2014 mayoral contest. All the marches and rallies and speeches were pretty much useless.

“We could have done nothing and achieved the same result,” he said.

Don’t forget these were the activists, the advocates, the good guys, at the conference. But they argued against tinkering with the school aid formula, wrung their hands about seeking an end to charter schools completely, held out little hope about seriously integrating the public schools of the state, and believed that a mayor who hires school board members really means it when he talks about independent public education.

Even if Phil Murphy is elected, public education in New Jersey–and throughout the nation–is in serious trouble.

It is underfunded.

It is racially segregated.

It is in danger of being swept away by charters.

Its employees are demoralized.

It has been targeted for destruction by a national administration unlike any other in the history of the republic.

In short, without aggressive action to restore the promise of public education, it will continue to lose support among those who will turn to nuts like Trump and DeVos to find answers in alternatives like vouchers, private schooling, and home-schooling.









  1. DeVos’ goal is to replace government schools with Christian schools that display the Ten Commandments in every classroom. The charter school wars in New Jersey’s largest cities have been effectively lost. It remains to be seen if the suburbs will retain public education systems. In Newark, specifically, there will be few schools left when the Local Control Day arrives. The Trump administration can inflict a substantial amount of damage on public education in the United States in the next four, or possibly eight years. Thus far, Republicans are for the most part marching in lock step with the President and the Democrats have failed to mount a well-organized opposition despite the large numbers of grass roots protests in the streets. The future does not bode well for public education in these fifty states.

  2. This column is dark, Bob, but fair. It cuts almost to the bone, yet kindly leaves only a flesh wound.

    Will people have the will to fight back?

    No, not when they have the ‘option’ of jumping on the wagon. Whether theirs is a gratuitous leap or a subtler one.

    No, not while they reckon the ‘cancer’ will never get to them and theirs.

    No, not when we’ve been psychologically quashed and left to believe that our system of government is fundamentally corrupted, if not entirely corrupt, having lost its sense of mission and purpose regarding (among how many other things?) the fundamental importance of inclusiveness and equal protections under the law.

    To understand the disease, we need to understand its message.

    Unchecked aggression is one key. The desire for total domination is another. The diseased believe they can turn these keys with impunity.

    Escaping the disease (one way to ‘fight’) is, for many, to simply work around it. How? Too many ways to list this time. So let’s focus instead on people who cannot avoid it, because there we’ll find most all of the combatants, and most of their conspicuous prey.

    Never minding for a moment that avoidance produces its own variety of victim and in deliberate abundance: The Legions of the Cowed. And among the cowed, those who feel they might win at the game. Maybe win big.

    The new regime believes in games. Not so different from the old one. Just a ‘fresher’ (and soggier) form of unbridled market energy on a collision course with a new old wall.

    But back to the combatants. Among them are the ‘leaders’ of our latest (education) market revolution.

    Strange, I know, but that’s how privatizers see themselves – as revolutionaries. Their crusaders agreed some time ago to mount an industrial scale campaign of corporate-style warfare on domestic populations. Their target, in this case us (while their market is global), is softened up; our hands already full just making it from point A to point B, again and again, day after day. Stoked crusaders gladly encumber us with the further burden of detecting and defending against their ‘coherent’ plan to slyly corral plain people into a revamped system. One that is transparently preoccupied with a web of interlocking rewards and punishments.

    They call it an education. Too true.

    This adjusted training regimen is intended to supplant the egalitarian ethos – such as it is and was – of public education in America, replacing it with something ‘business minded’. Its devotees speak excitedly of a bright future – but only for some. Even on a good day.

    Purveyors of the new model get a nice check for collaborating – unlike their target population, now forced to range far beyond point A and point B in order to continue intact.

    They call this our ‘liberation’, referring to themselves as ‘thought leaders’. Macabre?

    People need to decide for themselves if these avatars are in fact our friends. Amazingly, this process has not been properly worked through yet – a liability that the ‘liberators’ continually obscure, selectively coaxing it but only to the advantage of their own reputation. Domestic propaganda, fed directly to school kids and families.

    It’s our nature that only a minority of people will tend to bite the hand that feeds them (more will, eventually, through cultivated resentment) and a minority, too, that will arrive at the principled act of refusing to eat (when stress really builds). The bulk of a population will instead follow a well-arranged trail of breadcrumbs to a designated place, where the rewards are said to be kept (in reputedly abundant supply for those deemed worthy).

    ‘Revolutionary’ lures are based on simple observations like these, and then cast about to make easy pickings of the system they intend to conquer (this time a wealthy yet substantially impoverished first-world system), replacing it with ‘thought leader’ updates pushed out as being markedly better.

    No, not better – the best! The very best, for the inescapable new revolution … in how we … interface.

    And how we monetize a palatial life of clicks and swipes.

    Who writes this crap?


    That’s all it takes? To capture whose imagination?

    To advance the next great revolution (in how we dole out wealth), engineers had first to amass the private capital (not all in one place but under a unifying banner), sufficient to secure majority private ownership of United States government institutions and interests. They figured that out and did it. They also had to place networks of people within the government who were willing to sell their seats. They managed to get through that part, too. These successes are painfully obvious by now.

    We now teeter on the brink of the newest revision. But they still have to make it look good to enough users. Branded MAGA heads will celebrate it, while wrapping it around theirs.

    Another feature of human nature is that there’s just no talking to some people. Particularly when they have their blood up. And their minds carefully shunted. More so after we’ve been systematically abused, diminished, and deprived.

    Which is why a toxic environment (fueled by aggression) is so politically expedient. For authoritarian assholes.

    Charters are NOT designed, like the pitch says, as ‘healthy competition’ for the public education system. Charters are clearly conceived as ‘market’ penetrators. They operate within an assumed (or enforced) zero-sum framework with the express purpose of destabilizing an old regime and replacing it with a new one. It’s a sponsored cage match.

    Charters are part of an early draft that got jacked and converted into a hastily assembled and ‘scalable’ component of someone’s fitful vision for our best wired future. There will be endless revisions – some harder to spot.

    Future edu revisions will be increasingly ‘interactive’ on the tech level. While you look into them, they’re looking back (into you). The future of the state’s wagging finger will be data-driven in the extreme. Not news to readers at Bob Braun’s Ledger.

    We’re hip deep in this next industrial revolution, and like any that preceded it, it starts out fast and dirty. It’s deliberately disruptive when staking claims. It’s murderous. And treacherous. It’s driven by the grandiose imaginings of a handful of people, born in the right place and at the right time (and in many cases born to those who similarly profited before them), who believe they can know the future – both dire and wonderful – cash in on it, reshape it, and then cash in some more.

    And maybe get a statue or two made in their image.

    Naturally, it seeks to build on young minds.

    The revolutionaries are smart – according to their own fawning self-assessments – and reliably aggressive. They have access to endless (and once taxable) loot, and they will do whatever they can (once known as lying) to funnel belief into their products and efforts as being good for us. They will leave a ghastly trail of bodies. They call their process ‘learning through failure’.

    That’s so cool! But not really.

    They’re headquartered on epic mountains of sequestered wealth. Such wealth soon emboldens in them the predictable, baneful, and familiar doppelgänger: megalomania (there’s even a fluffy kind).

    Such misbegotten motivations and mangled priorities go a long way toward explaining the political trajectories of both Chris Christie and Donald Trump. Who can honestly sing of the ‘talent’ in those two packages? Free-market human lampreys?

    Yet people buy the message. Until they again realize the need to fight off the very thing they were taught to love, with the very things they were taught to dismiss and despise (like genuine humility, unflagging human dignity, courage, conviction, and, say, respect for an enlightened public education process).

    For those of us summoned in response to this long succession of attacks on the state, life also requires a revolution in how we fight and how we learn to fight. It requires a serious plan. A public plan that all can access. It will force a lot of soul-searching in order to succeed. It will also be significantly spontaneous.

    Or we can go on seeing people get bought.

    It will require a clear answer to deliberate, high-profile aggression, no matter how that aggression happens to be couched.

    Are we going to look on, impassively, while white hat billionaires duke it out with black hat billionaires and maneuver their armies of spoon-fed millionaire pols in a bizarre twitter-fueled pie fight to decide our collective fate as Americans?

    Can power return to the people (where it belongs) as it is and was, before our working lives and liberties get further auctioned away for cents on the dollar? Yes. Yes. And Yes.

    The revolving super-race has a plan. They always do. They feel both entitled and driven to execute their schemes. Most of us will never be so tempted, nor lured to a sit down at a Trump table. We’re supposed to feel a loss on that account?

    The super-race believe their machinations are both brilliant and supremely just. That’s a scratchy old tune. It’s premised on intoxicating bullshit.

    These newest supermen are bound to get played in turn, in perfect accord with their glaring vulnerabilities. They’ll be shocked to find that the planet is not (as proven out many times) theirs to own and manipulate.

    They’ll be way too high on their own messaging (and whatever else they’re juicing) to see the wall of justice coming.

    Once ensnared, they’ll then try feeding our asses into the flames to save their own (as usual). They’ll seek to hide all record of their failures and embarrassments.

    Reason enough, I figure, to hold any such ‘public servants’ in quarantine and keep them there, until the fever passes and their time of undue influence safely expires. That would be the bare minimum. Better still to squeeze out and reject all that they represent, and to make a thorough job of it. Do we remember how that’s done? How can a free people (and their press) afford to lapse?

    Most of us still have vital work to do in keeping up with real life, which has become entirely too invested in cleaning up after overly-empowered schmucks. And their big ideas. And their nasty, drunken, belligerent, predatory, entitled, asset-stripping, ahem … ingenious new public/private business model.

    Stamp these poseurs and pretenders to elected office as defective, one by one, and do not allow them another purloined opportunity to turn around and do the same to us.

    We have the power to take theirs away. But they haven’t seen the opposition to rampant privatization marshaled yet to best effect, so they may doubt that day is coming.

    A showdown is plainly due.

    Trump is banking on Betsy’s ability to wield the power of the purse. And good old American complacency. A proven formula (except the Betsy part).

    But c’mon – that poor excuse for a man still takes cues from his TV set for God’s sake.

    While the GOP are endless fools for market deregulation and high-end tax cuts.

    Then there’s the absolutely twisted Trump inner circle stuff that can’t be hidden forever. The GOP has major stink on its hands. Along with the blood.

    This is one revolution that is begging for a series of major humiliations.

  3. Though often hidden, there is a deep division in our nation around the argument that there IS such a thing as a “fundamental idea that public schools are and should be engines of equality and diversity…” While as a nation we have incrementally pushed our way to legislating an all-student public education, there are those who see these laws as NOT fundamental (foundational) — remembering that originally schools were for the rich, for the dominant culture, for the few.

  4. […] Do public school advocates have the will to fight Trump? Open question. […]

  5. Largely ineffective in fighting Christie as we focused on fights within the framework designed by corporate reformers, we will need to be much better at reframing the debate in our own terms, much bolder about making demands and much clearer about our positions when it comes to who we support in the ballot box. It will also take the unification of advocacy groups and unions. The fear of some groups to associate with the unions only feeds the narrative of corporate reformers and ultimately divides us. The union being shy about being Union does the same. We need to be bold. Unified. Fierce.

  6. […] Bob Braun, the retired education reporter for the Newark Star Ledger and an avid blogger in Newark, …  Commenting on a recent conference of public education supporters and advocates in New Jersey, he writes: […]

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