This is my speech at the Save Our Schools Rally, Saturday, July 30, 2011, on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C.
One thing that is interesting is that only mad dogs, Englishmen and teachers could imagine having a rally at noon in Washington DC, in the middle of the summer. But I am willing to be a mad dog and a mad teacher.
There are some advantages to being old, and that is that you have been there before. As Diane Ravitch reminded us yesterday, even in my one limited life this is about the fifth major crisis caused by teachers. But I do think there is something special about this crisis.
We are in a crisis, but not the one they are talking about. We are in a crisis about human relationships, and a crisis about the survival of democracy. That is what we are fighting for. The word public is even in the word republic. There can’t be a republic if there is not a public, and there can’t be a democracy if there is not a republic.
The latest great idea for solving the public school problem is to abolish it.
We are fighting for saving the idea and the existence of a public school system in the belief that the only alternative we are being offered is one whose faults we know are greater still. That is a marketplace, unevenly stacked between competing consumers. That is what is being offered to replace the public school system.
There could not be a worse idea.
Oddly, some of those who are the most active in promoting this idea are the very people who created the last crisis of the free marketplace.
Isn’t that intriguing? They hope to use it to increase their power, not to increase our power. What infuriates me the most is that they do it in the name of civil rights. This last economic crisis wiped out virtually half of the wealth that existed in the Black community, built up over the last 40 years, wiped out in the housing crisis. We have done more damage to the poor, the Black and the Latino communities in this economic crisis than, believe me, I did in first grade.
Yes, this attack on public education is being used as a distraction from many of the other problems facing us, but more than a distraction it is undermining everything I have spent the last eighty years (I started a birth) struggling for. Only Russia today has a greater concentration of wealth than the United States. Think of that. Only Mexico, in the European/American world, has a higher percentage of children living in poverty. We are a little bit ahead of Mexico, and way behind the rest of our competitors.
We would not be facing any of these crises of budgets next year if those top one percent who control 25 to 30% of the our wealth paid the same taxes that you and I pay.
We are at fault for something however. We should have started this much earlier!
Every single one of us is at fault for not having done that. Thank god a few people said, “Let’s start even if it is the middle of summer, even if we do not know what we are doing, even if we won’t get the millions we would like to get.” It has to start, all of us start.
I think our joint motto is “Schooling for ruling.” We want a school system that teaches us all how to be rulers of our own nation. To do so we need a reform movement that helps democratize, not privatize, the schools we have, which are flawed. They are flawed for not being democratic enough, rather than being flawed by not be privatized enough.
We are a motley crew. Another thing I have learned with age is to stop fighting against the things I cannot change, like my big feet. I used to dream of having long straight hair that would gracefully float in the wind. And now I make the most of having a mop.
We have to make the most of who we are. We may be splintered. I am speaking on behalf of three or four different organizations, each of which is in a state of crisis itself. But that is our plus. We are used to that.
We are not going to wait for some foundation to provide us with the funds. We can unite around some common demands. We each in our own way can do the job.
I want to say one personal word. I have been extraordinarily lucky. I have had 45 to 50 years of living in classrooms and schoolhouses in America’s public urban schools. They have been the greatest experience in my life. I fear there will be fewer of you younger people who will be able to say that if we stop taking teachers seriously.
To view this speech, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgNZ7BDRk14