Robbing the Pillars

Today while visiting my mother-in-law, we somehow got on the conversation of her childhood growing up in Scranton PA during the 1950’s and 1960’s. She recalled how many people’s homes collapsed into sink holes because of the miles and miles of mining tunnels that had been dug underneath the town.  According to her, the miners were supposed to leave pillars of coal around the spaces where they dug out, so that supports would be in place to keep the surface above from caving in.  However, the miners were also expected to meet a quota of coal extraction.  And when no adequate amounts of coal were available any longer, they would “rob from the pillars” (Anne M., personal correspondence) to meet their quota.  As a result, home after home would sink into deep mining holes because the supporting coal pillars were no longer in place. Being the ever vigilant educational activist, I saw this story as a sad but remarkable analogy to what is happening to public education.

You see, eliminating the opportunity for all children to choose a quality meaningful and equitable public education, is robbing all of us of one of the pillars that supports the foundation of democracy. Without it we will have a devastating social sinkhole, one which will take with it the values and possibilities associated with a free and just society.  I do not take well to standing witness as public school children are treated as pawns to broker a deal with corporations making a bid to run our educational system.

I have been in education for over twenty years. I have been a parent for almost seven. While I have been dedicated to efforts democratizing and transforming education all this while, it only became “personal” since my own children through the doors of kindergarten on their first day of public school. So my interest in public schooling is not longer simply intellectual or pedagogical-it is personal. But there’s more to it than this. This isn’t just about my kids anymore. In the words of Twilight Bey from Anna Deaver Smith Twilight, “in order for me to be a true human being …I can’t forever dwell in the idea, of just identifying with people like me and understanding me and mine.” 

We all need to care about the pillars that support us all, not simply the one that may be just below the foundation of our own home.

Given my educational and the resources provided by my socio-economic background I could find alternatives to save my own children from a system that is increasingly bent on chewing them up and spitting them out. But for me this fight isn’t simply about saving my own kids. It’s not about restoring public education to some previous form (as in supporting the status quo), but about saving the public nature of it and transforming public schools into viable sites for equitable, humane, desirable, and meaningful sites for learning for all children. This means advocating for public school teachers dedicated to their profession and the children they serve. It’s about advocating for communities that struggle to become economically self-sustaining. It’s about advocating for families who can’t buy their kids a $600 ipad and teach them from home, and for the child for whom public school may be the safest and most supportive space they have available.  As entire cities like Philadelphia sell their public education out to the highest bidder, for- profit online “education companies” wait in the wings, salivating.

The right to this space, the space of PUBLIC education, is as essential a civil liberty as is any other possibility in America.  In a pluralistic society privatizing any public service has never benefited the most disenfranchised peoples with the fewest economic means.

I am advocating for saving other people’s children, not just my own, my efforts must be realistic and informed about the realities of other people’s children as well. Could I morally as one who proclaims to fight for education watch every other child not in the life raft of privilege sink as the pillar of their rights to a public education are eroded from beneath them and say “Well, that’s not my problem”?

While I adamantly support the right of every parent who chooses to make a free and informed decision about how to educate their children (whether it’s a private religious school, an alternative school, or simply “unschool”), true choice as Tim Slekar writes  “must include the right for a parent to choose a quality public education in a publicly owned” system.  Look carefully at the 1% ers who are forcing these policies and mandates down the throats of public schools.  Do they send their kids to these schools? Nope.  They spend tens of thousands of dollars in an effort to send their kids to schools that have classrooms with smaller teacher to pupil ratios to ensure individualized attention, rich art, music, and sporting programs, and a curriculum that (even if it uses standardized tests) does not teach to the test through skill-drill and kill practices.   It’s easy to sacrifice the lives of children of others if you don’t have to face them every day.   Why aren’t we taking the billions of dollars being spent on hiring “trained professionals” from business-model educational training facilities who are paid top dollar to teach teachers how to implement the new Common Core, textbook companies for the latest “required” resources to meet the Common Core, and testing and evaluation companies paid to supposedly help schools to evaluate themselves and their students, and take that money and use it to provide resources to children and schools that would actually improve and transform their learning experience into something that would enable them to truly be successful? Why not?  Because there’s no profit margin in that.

It’s that simple.

Any efforts to “innovate” or “reform” public education that does not have at its central core advocacy for a viable, equitable, and publicly available and publicly “owned” educational system, is simply undemocratic.  The current push toward charter schools, vouchers, and online learning must not come at the expense of an equitable, accessible, free, and QUALITY public education. Privatizing public education is not only an oxymoron, it’s replacing our democracy with a corpacracy-in which corporations, largely those in the business of online services, will own the rights to education, be its primary decision makers, developers of curriculum and evaluation systems, and the recipients of billions of tax dollars intended to provide the physical, material, and intellectual resources to educate all children.

Innovative “reforms” that see technology as the panacea, one in which public schools are eliminated, is simply naïve, and such rhetoric could spare itself a whole lot of writing space by simply saying “Let them eat cake.”

I support the efforts of those parents who are fighting for their own children who may be suffering right now at the hands of high stakes testing, poorly funded schools, or other grossly inhumane educational policies.  We do need change. We need it right now.  Every parent needs to speak out on behalf of their children if they have the means to do so.

However there are also those of us who are also choosing to opt out of high stakes testing  in an effort not only to save our own children but to save our schools as a fundamental right to save all our children in a democratic society.  It’s bigger than any one of us.  I admire the work of my colleague Peg Robertson because she is not simply fighting to save her own children.  Her children are currently spared from the “slings and arrows of misfortune” (to paraphrase Shakespeare).  Her fight is not based in self-interest.  She knows as do many of us that we have to recognize the fate of all children affects us all.  Like so many others whom I am proud to fight beside, there are those who are advocating for more than just their own children. Many do so at considerable personal or professional costs.  Their interest like mine is in saving education as a democratic public institution.  Children all over the country, ages 4-7, right now are going to be the future peers and colleagues, citizens of the world my own children are going to inherit.  I wish for as many of them as possible to be healthy, happy, free, critical thinkers who have been educated to actively engage with the world around them, to have empathy, and broad-minded perspectives.  I want as few of them as possible to go through the school to prison pipeline or be unemployed.

We cannot save OUR children (meaning ALL of ours), without saving public education from the hands of the privatizing “reformers” who use slogans like “accountability” and school “choice” as buzz words to sell out the general public to a narrative that benefits only themselves.  Proclaiming that parents should simply take their children out of school and find alternatives makes sense for some families … it does.  On an individual level, to help your own child if that’s what it takes, then go for it.  As a parent, I genuinely understand.

However, that is not the same thing as proclaiming oneself as an advocate for ALL children.  Because not ALL children can afford to have the opportunity to a public education (outside the home or private institution) taken away from them.  Rather than destroy the core pillar that undergirds this institution we need to revolutionize the institution-not by handing it over to corporate-run entities as a privatized profit making industry, but by allotting resources, time, and knowledge of what we have known for decade works, but have chosen to ignore.  It’s simple: Look at the programs and opportunities provided in spades to children of the affluent.  What happens in those schools?  We don’t need labyrinth-like policies and accountability measures with new standards and more tests.  If children, everyone’s children were really the central focus of our efforts, and not profit, this would be the real “innovation.”


Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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