Search This Blog

Thursday, October 27, 2011

1% For Teachers: An Immodest Proposal for Teacher Pay

"You couldn't pay me enough to do what you do," a friend told me the other day.

"It's not for everybody," I replied. It's become my stock response in such situations because every time I'm asked that question. My only other choice seems to be to paraphrase Taylor Mali and his "What does a teacher make?" rant, but I'm not nearly as talented as him.

The fact is that, in purely financial terms, most teachers are choosing to earn less than we could in order to do what we do.

And yes, it is nice to get those emails from former students telling us how amazing we are and how much we changed their lives and how grateful they are and how much they want to be just like us. It warms the cockles of our hearts when those come through, but frankly, sweetness and love just doesn't pay off debt nearly as well as money.

This lower pay is, in part, to blame for things like high teacher turnover, low teacher morale, and the lack of quality applicants in high demand areas like math and science, as well as the resultant retardation of student progress.

If we steal Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour meme with regards to proficiency, a teacher would need to be in the classroom (figuring the average new teacher puts in 7 hours at school and an additional 1.5 at home) for 6.5 years before they were truly competent. Sadly, 50% of teachers are gone within their first five years.

But it isn't practical to raise teacher salaries. In order to achieve public/private parity we would need to cough up 21 Billion dollars annually and there is just no way that this country is going to do that. We just aren't.

So how can we bring financial reward to both strong teaching and career endurance?

I know a way.

No, I don't mean value-added evaluations. No, not at all. Test scores can only tell us the proximate measure of teacher impact. They measure growth over a 10-month period with a microscopic focus on a narrowly defined sense of progress. Sure they're better than the often random and sometimes vindictive administrative evaluations they replace, but they are not the answer.

They don't even pretend to shed light on the ultimate impact that a teacher has on his or her students.

Ultimately, the success of the teacher should be measured by the success of the student later in life. Successful people owe something to the teachers that helped create them. They are expected to provide for their parents when mom and dad are in their dotage, but Mom and Dad dealt with them for only a few hours each day between 3:00 and bed time. It's the teachers that helped civilize the beasts and turn the pop-culture-puree that passed for a brain into a formidable learning and doing machine. There needs to be some equity in the return on investment here.

I hereby propose the "1% for the Teacher" program and it will work like this:

Every taxpaying American citizen shall be offered the opportunity to earmark 1% of their tax payment to be donated directly to the teacher of their choice that they believe had the greatest impact on their ability to earn and thrive in the modern world, so long as that teacher is still employed as a teacher or the teacher has retired after fully vesting in their pension.

Imagine a world where, come tax time, we sat down and reflected in front of our 1040 or our Schedule C and asked ourselves, "who forced me to learn my multiplication tables so that I don't have to pull out a calculator to figure my yearly income based on my hourly wage?" or "Who taught me that real reward came from doing hard work right?" or "Who believed in me when I was thirteen and I didn't believe in myself?" or "Who taught me to express myself so eloquently in writing so that I could tell people off politely but firmly when they email me with a work request at 4:53?"

And then we think of Ms. Jones, or Mr. Gomez, and we check the small box labeled "1% for Teachers" and we turn to our computers and find their name and school in the database and find their 9 digit Educator Tax Donation Number and we carefully copy the number into the blanks, knowing that our favored educator will finally be rewarded for their hard work. We can choose a different teacher every year, or if one is really special, the same one over and over again.

Now imagine that you are Ms. Jones or Mr. Gomez and you've slaved over your work for the past seven years. You've sacrificed for your students. You've bought them books and lunch and clothes. You've denied yourself time with your own children (who then ask pointedly whether you love your students more than you love them. It happens, believe me.) and you've fought hard against the shortsighted and abusive interference of petty bureaucrats and politicians as they arrogantly try to explain to you how to do a job they've never done. And now you're a veteran teacher and you've found your groove -- and you've topped the salary schedule in your district, so it's never going to get much better than this financially.

Now imagine going to the mailbox one day and finding a check from the IRS made up of small sums from Little Jimmy James and that knucklehead Larry Petersen (with whom you were patient when nobody else was), and others who's names bring back memories both grand and traumatic. You look at the names and you look at the check and you know that even now, years later, they are grateful enough to provide more than just kind words. They believe that what you did -- whether it wa that day when you made them do something over, or you gave that inspirational speech to get them over the hump, or something else -- was the thing that helped make them who they are today. And you know that the money is likely to keep coming so long as you stay teaching and doing it well.

In order to compensate for the fact that teaching in a high poverty neighborhood is likely to produce less 1% income than teaching in wealthy neighborhoods, a small portion of the 1% that is donated to teachers within a district would be siphoned off to augment the donations to teachers in poorer schools. Even the 1040EZ would have a 1% for teachers box and, though no money would come directly from a low-income tax return, a donation tied to the average donor contribution would be made to the teacher named using the 1% reserve fund created by the wealthier donations.

Imagine. A system where the rewards of teaching come from those who are the only ones who can truly assess your work and come from a time when your work can truly be assessed. This would be merit pay based on the ultimate product of a teacher's labor.

It is a system that would reward long careers. It is a system that would reward making a difference to children, rather than just stuffing their heads with tested knowledge. It is a system that allows teachers to continually increase their earnings up to and beyond the point of parity. It is a system where the teachers who truly make a difference glean the benefits of the difference they make.

Mr. Nagel, Ms. Dunning, Mr. Williams, Mr. Livingston, and Mr H.: I hereby start the fight for your 1% and when this plan is implemented, I'm donating 5% each year -- one for each of you.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Charter Schools with a Velvet Rope

I love charter schools. I've worked in and for charter schools for the last 10 years and I've never regretted it. I love them, I really do, but it's not the blind, wake-up-thinking-about-them, goofy-grin, what-faults-are-you-talking-about sort of love. It's the love that one feels after years of marriage. It's a deep, profound, eyes-wide-open and roll-my-eyes-because-I've-heard-this-story-a-thousand-times-before sort of love.

I've written about the realities of charter schools before. And I wrote about it again here. Charter schools are not a panacea. Charter schools will not solve our educational mess. While 3 of the top 5 schools in LA are charters, so are several of the schools on the bottom of the heap. Charter schools are not going to be consistently better or worse than existing public schools. Some are great, others suck in ways that are hard to explain to people who've not seen them in action.

Charter schools are public schools. They are not allowed to charge you to come. They aren't allowed to make demands of you that a traditional public school cannot make also. They are obligated to serve all comers. Most charter schools I've seen were created by well-meaning and good people who earnestly believe that what they are doing is going to provide options for children who might otherwise not have had any. Charter schools in Los Angeles provide art for the artless, dance for the danceless, second chances for the recently clueless, opportunities for those with otherwise limited reach, and alternatives for those who just don't fit in the industrial classroom.

But just like in a marriage, there are limits and my personal limit is when people of privilege use charter law to build a school that is designed to exclude, rather than include, students in need. Two of our better known charter elementary schools in Los Angeles, The Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts and Larchmont Charter Elementary have been finding ways to select certain families and children based on criteria such as financial and professional abilities and granting them preferred admittance in exchange for organizing fundraisers and donating volunteer hours. To me, this is an inexcusable violation of the spirit of the charter school movement in California and if it is allowed to continue, it opens the door to again creating the same inequities in public education that I and others have started charter schools to fix.

Even though both schools still employ a lottery for some of their seats, allowing some socio-economic diversity, Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts is serving a population that is only 40% free and reduced lunch and is in a neighborhood where the local district elementary, Glassell Park Elementary, serves 89% disadvantaged students. Glassell Park Elementary is not a bad school, but I would bet that there are 40 kids who go there who would rather go to the school where the Jonas Brothers played at the "Back to School" event down the street.

Exclusivity in charter admissions is an abomination and I am infuriated by it.

The bad actions of these two schools, and my suspicion is that they are not the only two, are putting the great works of hundreds of other charters at risk. It is wrong behavior. It is the behavior of those who elevate the needs of a few over the needs of the many.

It is the attitude of privilege in action.

It's only been in recent months that the national dialogue has allowed us to discuss the conflicting interests and power inequities of class in our country. Up until Occupy Wall Street, class conflict was mostly viewed as domestic dispute so it was politely ignored by passers-by and the victims tended to decompose quietly as they went about the daily business of making do.

The pernicious twisting of programs like public schooling, which were designed for public good and were intended as an equalizer, so that the lion's share of benefits falls to those who need them the least is the story of class struggle in education. The loophole in the law that created this opportunity must be closed. We cannot allow one of the few good things to happen to public schools in recent years to be turned into yet another place where privilege has its privileges.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What would you do for a dollar?

Kids struggle with money. No matter what school I've been in, when it's come to understanding how money works, they're lost. It doesn't matter if they're children of privilege or children of hardship, they just don't get money.

It's no wonder, really. The reality of money is very abstract. Kids have been holding dollars in their grubby little hands since before they could be relied on to properly wipe themselves, but most of them have never thought to ask what it is. Money usually just comes to them. It comes to them from work, from family, from crime, and from fortune, but just like their phones and their TVs, the mechanics of the system are foggy even though the practical applications are readily visible.

But their futures don't depend on being able to understand how their phones work, and all of our futures depend on making sure that all of our children understand the realities of their currency.

Recently, one of my students was struggling with this issue in his econ class. Walter is an intense and thoughtful kid with a melancholy affect. He's studious at times, but is also prone to long periods of staring blankly at work and to the occasional loud forays to other areas of the room when he's frustrated. Economics had him doing both.

"What's the problem," I asked him as I shepherded him back to his seat for the fourth time that day.

He gestured to an article on the money supply. "I don't get it."

I reached into my back pocket and extracted a single dollar bill.

"Walter, what's this?"

"A dollar."

"What's it worth?"

"It's worth a dollar."

"A dollar is worth a dollar," I smile and he does, too. "What would you do for a dollar?"

"Nothin. It ain't worth shit, it's like a twentieth of a 'dub," he cocked his head, "I'd do somethin' for a dub..."

"Well if it isn't worth anything..." I pinch the dollar with two hands and begin to tear it, "then I should just throw it away."

He reaches out to stop me. "Shit man, you gonna rip up money, you should just give it to me."

I hand him the dollar, "So obviously it's worth something to you. What can you get with it?"

He told me. With one dollar, he could purchase a candy bar, a can of soda, a small bag of chips. Almost always, the answer comes back to me in food form. It's what kids buy for themselves, so it's what they know. Walter, like all people, understood the practical application of money and, just like all people, he intuitively understood resource properties --a dollar contains the dual qualities of scarcity and demand so therefore it has value -- but his knowledge of money was just as unconscious as a housecat's knowledge of physics. Unlike a housecat, though, Walter was capable of understanding the mechanics behind his actions.

"So, Walter, tell me. When you walk into the liquor store to get a bag of chips, why is the guy there willing to take this," I wiggle the dollar that I'm holding, "in exchange?"

He bulges his eyes at me a little and wiggles his head. "Cuz it's a dollar."

"Why?" I repeat.

He laughs and shrugs and looks at the dollar some more.

"But why?" I repeat.

He howls a little frustrated, strangled howl that gets the attention of the rest of the kids in class. "Is he doin' the dollar thing with you?" one of them shouts and then laughs. Walter's not the first kid I've done this with.

"Why what," he finally asks.

"Why do we all believe that that piece of cloth paper in your hand is worth a bag of chips?"

He shakes his head and gives up, "I don't know man... we just do!"

And this is the core truth of our economic system. They whole thing is an article of faith held together with spit, big words and bailing wire. The average person thinks of a dollar as an item with intrinsic value, but it's not. In our economic system, a dollar is a resource just like oil, gold, and bandwidth. Its worth is implied in what it can be used for, not in its simple existence. Walter, like almost all people, thinks of his dollar in terms of what he can purchase for it in a simple exchange.

But he needs to change his view because that's not how the 1% think about money. Throughout our history our long roster of the 1%'ers have understood that if you control a resource, you control everybody who needs it.

Carnegie did it with Steel. Rockefeller did it with oil. The railroad barons were masters of it.

But the average person at the time didn't need oil or steel or railroads in order to live a meager life.

But that's changed recently because now much of ourcurrent 1% are doing it with money itself.

This means that all of us are now dependent on them.

We borrow money from them. We owe money to them. They control our retirements, our pensions and our futures. And just as Carnegie explained in the "Gospel on Wealth," they insist that their existence in our lives is necessary and that what is good for them is good for us.

We struggle with how to push back against them because they own our houses.

Our entire nation has become a company town and we all owe our souls to the company store. And just like hostages of any other sort, we have begun to believe that our only hope resides with their contentment. We cringe when the Dow Jones goes down and cheer when it rises. A bunch of us are really sure that giving them access to more money through tax cuts and deregulation will really help the rest of us. But the one that bothers me the most is when we watch the CPI each month and we all hope that it doesn't budge.

We are delusional.

If we had just a little bit of inflation, if we had just a little less faith in our dollars, we could fight back.

A little bit of inflation would mean that those dollars that the 1% are hoarding would be worth less. Our debts would be worth less. Our houses might actually break the surface and we might be able to breathe. It wouldn't be a panacea, but it might be a palliative for the hurting classes right now. Inflation is only a problem if people owe you money. That's not a problem for 99% of us. For the 99%, it might be a lifesaver.


If money is worth less, it hurts less to lend it.

If money is worth less, it hurts less to spend it.

If you are worried that our wages may not keep up, evidence points to no. Inflation necessitates wage growth.

As you can see in this graph, even during the stagflation of the 1970's, wages grew commensurate with inflation.

It would also mean COLA increases for those surviving on government assistance and social security.
Inflation won't solve everything, but it could help us all just a little bit.

But it's not going to happen unless we change how we think about money.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pawnthink and the Power of Personal Narrative

When I orient new students to my school, I always remind them why they're here:

"Everybody who's here has screwed up. Either y'all did something, or something happened to you, or you had bad habits and it landed you here. We are the land of second chances and the only reason to be here is if your first chance has been used up."

Our school is designed for kids who didn't do high school right the first time.

Most of the time, heads nod. They know. It's not news to them that they didn't do everything right. Most of them have been hearing it since kindergarten or before. My kids are the ones who couldn't line up, couldn't sit still, couldn't stay quiet, and couldn't resist talking back. My students didn't D.A.R.E to stay off drugs. On days when the Watts Childcare center is closed, our attendance drops by a 25% -- all female.

Nodding in an orientation is easy. Changing is much harder.

They may know they made mistakes, but in order to get right with their own best hopes for themselves, they're going to have to do more than nod. They've got to change their narrative.

Our personal narratives are our guides to how we understand the world and the most common narratives among my students are destructive. These children's best hopes are ephemeral and distant and without a change in their personal narrative, their hopes will diminish and then die.

We do what we can to keep them alive.

We can teach them how to line up and we can teach them how to ask questions. We can teach them how to take notes but it isn't so easy to teach them how not to give up. We can teach them not to sleep in class and we can teach them how to show up to school. We can teach them proper ways of addressing authority and we can remind them that calling a teacher a "punk-ass bitch" didn't work so well for them before and that now might be a good time to change.

But it is much harder to teach somebody who has believed since before their earliest memories that they are powerless over the world and that the world is dark,dangerous and out to get them that their own choices have had a starring role in their personal destruction (Click here for more on this worldview in my students).

While our students are all near the age of majority, the dominant narrative is victim-based and leads to an emotional age that hovers far lower. We get tantrums because being a victim sucks. We teachers have all been trained on how to assess levels and types of anger and how to manage, deescalate and distract our students so that no permanent damage is done to our furniture, ourselves, our students, or the tenuous grasp on a second chance that each of them has.

Our classrooms can get chaotic -- sometimes there can be 60 or 70 bear cubs in the room with only two or three adults to keep it together.

And sometimes we reach a point where we have to let one of them go.

Meet Jerry. He's not leaving us yet, but if he can't snap his narrative, he's on his way. He's a nice kid. He's funny and he's a showman. He's a one-man, one-ring, circus who amuses the other kids to no end, but he doesn't get any work done and he's not progressing towards graduation. If you ask him why, he'll tell you that it's because of: people stealing his work, us not seeing the work that he's doing, us picking on him, other kids setting him up, people picking on him.

Today was a bad Jerry day and part of it went like this:

"Jerry, we've got to talk," I started as he settled back in his seat having just returned from the office where he'd been referred by another teacher for dancing around the classroom and singing and then saying, "yeah, sure, baby -- whatever you want, I can do for you," which she somehow found inappropriate.

"Oh jeez, Mr. Singer, I'z just about to get my work done, no'whut'I'msayin (he uses it like a period whenever he talks and it's a contagion that's infected the rest of us. We all say it now)"

"Even so, we've got to talk."

"What about?"

"What happened in Ms. ______'s class. You got yourself referred again. Come on outside with me." Going outside is where the "private" conversations happen -- it's a green mile in our school.

"I didn't do nothin'. I'z just getting my shit done, no'whut'I'msayin. She got it all bent outta shape." He's smiling and at the same time growing smaller in his chair. I'm trying not to smile because he's funny, but this isn't.

We got Jerry last year. He'd bounced from Compton to Watts to Los Vegas to Bakersfield and finally back to us. He'd lived with his mom, his grams, his dad, his brother, and finally back to his grams in that stretch and he's attended 5 different schools. He'd accumulated a little over 100 credits in the last four years and he was going to need another 130 to get his diploma. That's 26 classes. He's completed 4 since he came to us last November.

It's hard to convince a kid who's been essentially itinerant his whole life that he has some responsibility for what happens to him, but we try.

His time with us has been composed of long stretches of silliness and aggravation interspersed with short periods of hard work and a lot of redirection and counseling. We've had some real moments, too, between reminding him about not shouting across the room, not pinching girls, not stealing other students' backpacks, not dancing, not calling the female teachers "baby," not responding when somebody 'taxes' him or 'puts him on blast,' but each moment was quickly lost amidst the silly, the weird, and the sometimes downright tragic.

A friend of mine refers to the personal narrative of kids like Jerry as "pawnthink"

Each conversation with Jerry starts the same way this one did. Jerry thinks like a chess pawn. A pawn never moves itself, it is not autonomous and has no control over the board on which it will most likely live and die. Thusly, Jerry has never once been able to see that he plays a role in what happens to him. It's hard to take advantage of a second chance if you aren't willing to admit that it was you who blew the first one.

We continued the conversation in the parking lot. "Y'all are putting extras on this, no'whut'I'msayin?"

He pointed out some of the other cubs that were prone to playing in class. "I get my work done, no'whut'I'msayin? I'm handlin' my shit but you never see that. You always sure I'm fuckin' shit up."

I have my computer in my hand and when he sees me scrolling over to the gradebook where little progress has been recorded, he throws up his hands. "You gotcher mind made up about me, Mr. Singer. My name's always in your mouth and I don't do nothin compared to Deshawn or Rhonda but you aren't movin them out."

Deshawn and Rhonda were both aggravating. But they were also both progressing. We'll put up with a lot from a student who's making progress. Jerry knows that -- he was complaining about it earlier, sure that they couldn't have accomplished as much as they had -- but it doesn't play into his narrative, so now he ignores it.

Jerry's narrative, like all of ours, is strong. I don't know when it happens for us, but at some point in our lives, we decide how our story will be told and then we stick to it come hell or high water. For some people, enough pain can break the narrative's hold long enough for a new one to form, but for others it takes an awful lot more.

Jerry is one of those. I talked at him a bit more, but he wasn't hearing me anymore. When I talked to his grams later, she sighed. She can't get heard by him, either. She's not a pawn and she doesn't like pawnthink any more than I do.

Pawnthink is especially pernicious because it is so prevalent in neighborhoods like Watts where citizens actually don't have that much control over their circumstance. It becomes a vicious circle and builds into a pervasive sense of powerlessness that can dictate inaction even when action is possible.

And Pawnthink can be extraordinarily frustrating to the bishops, queens, kings, and rooks who come down here to work. We want to change things because we see how it could all be different. If they would just think like us. If they would just do what we say. If they would just stop defeating themselves. If they would just be different.

But the structure of the industrial school was designed to re-enforce pawnthink and teachers who are trying to combat it can find themselves working against the narrative in a structure that supports it.

When a child's narrative casts them as a pawn, large institutions do little to disabuse them of the notion.

But Jerry will be back at school tomorrow because he has learned to attend every day. And tomorrow we'll start hacking away at his narrative again.

And maybe tomorrow it'll finally snap.

And if we can get it to snap, then he can make the most of his second chance.

Blogger's Note: Please feel free to also see this as an extended metaphor for conversations with anyone who doesn't yet believe that standing up and taking action will pay off. I'm looking at you, non-voters.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Topeka Consideration: Costs, Benefits and Moral Decision-Making

It's been a a bit over a week since the Values Voters Summit ended and, again, the right wing of our country has been able to use the words Values and Morals without challenge by main stream media. Since the 1980's it has been a foregone conclusion that those people who rate morals and values as a priority in selecting a candidate will vote Republican.

They claim morality and values and we shy away from playing ball on their field so historically, they've won the debate by forfeit. This has remained true even as Republican policies and rhetoric have grown so venal that they have had to redefine Jesus in order to maintain their conceit as Christians.

Ironically, the Values Voter Summit took place the same week that the Topeka City Council, facing a dwindling budget which was going to force them to choose between street maintenance and court costs, decriminalized domestic violence along with some other misdemeanors in order to shift enforcement costs to the county and state.

The City Council's argument was simple: We need to cut 10% more from our current budget and misdemeanor courts are our biggest expense. Our biggest expense in the misdemeanor courts are the domestic violence prosecutions, so we can save the most money by decriminalizing them and letting the state and county take over.

Most of us were aghast when they did this -- we were appalled at the total lack of regard for the potential costs to society if domestic violence were deemed non-criminal. Think of the murders, the felony beatings, the damaged women, the hospital expenses, the destroyed lives. How could they not consider the consequences?!

They did consider the consequences. Here they are:

In the relationship between cities and counties, the cities handle misdemeanors and the county system handles felonies. If the city decriminalizes misdemeanor domestic violence and a woman is killed because of it, that's a county expense. If a victim is sent to the hospital and has no insurance, that's a county expense. If a child ends up in protective services that's, you guessed it, a county expense.

The Topeka City council made a rational decision.

Whenever any of us make a decision we tally up the costs and the benefits before acting. We weigh the impact of our choice in terms of time, money, happiness and lost opportunities and make our decision in favor of the preponderance of the evidence we've considered. This is exactly what the Topeka City Council did.

Pro: Reduced cost
Pro: No new taxes
Pro: No loss of other services
Con: Women and children will die
Con: People might think we're assholes

They went with pro because they value money more than people. And they've backtracked this decision not because of the potential damage it could do, but because too many people thought they were assholes.

They aren't alone, though. More abstractly, killing the jobs bill, defunding NPR, defunding women's health, flat taxes, 9-9-9 plans, campaigning against national health care, destroying the regulatory machinery, defunding schools, defunding social services, cutting medicaid, raising the retirement age, and privatizing social security are also examples of exempting morality from decision-making.

Without morality, all a person can value is personal time, money, and satisfaction which means too often our national decision-makers make decisions solely based on their own self-interest. Getting money and getting re-elected are the sole considerations.

In response to all of this, we make snarky remarks and point out the hypocricy of Republicans wearing the dual mantles of Values Voter and Moral Majority, but we need to stop that.

We need to be come the Moral Majority of Values Voters who loudly and enthusiastically incorporate values and morality into our decisions, into our rhetoric, and into our platforms. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also our birthright as liberals.

As we saw in the reaction against the Topeka consideration, and as we are seeing on Wall Street and in civic plazas around the nation, moral outrage that is founded in true morality is a more powerful tool than base self-interest.

But if you don't believe me, just ask a Republican:

"A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both."

~Dwight D. Eisenhower, first inaugural address, 20 January 1953

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fighting For The Other 22%

One of my students asked me for a dollar again today.  She does it almost every day so that she can by a bag of chips and a granola bar.   I had one today, so I gave it to her.

100% of my students get free lunch.

33% of the minors in my program are in foster care.

Everybody is poor.

Their parents were poor, too.  So were their grandparents.

One student told me today, "We're waiting for the power to get turned back on."  Another mentioned that the reason he hadn't been coming was because they got the bill for his mom's surgery and the family needed him to work right now.

Several of them are homeless.

I wasn't born yet when LBJ declared his War on Poverty but I know we didn't win it -- the enemy has firm control over large swaths of our territory and is in charge of huge numbers of our people -- but I don't know when we gave up on it.

We did, though.  We still sometimes publish the body counts -- 22% American children lives in poverty and 9% live in extreme poverty -- but I haven't heard anybody mention winning the war on poverty in America recently.  

22% of children live in families that subsist on less than $22,000 per year for a family of 4.  9% of American children starve on less than $11,000 per year for a family of 4.

We sure as hell didn't win it and since we've stopped fighting we're nearly back to where we were before we started.  Just like in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, we've redefined victory and declared an end to the campaign.

Now when we talk about poverty, we split our time between blame and discussing  whether or not we should be providing palliative treatment.  We no longer discuss a cure.

This isn't true elsewhere.  England is still trying.  There was an editorial in the Guardian UK today that took the British Government to task for not having a clear enough strategic plan for ending child poverty in the UK.

In America we don't even have a strategic plan for ending child poverty to rail against for its ineffectiveness.

We don't even talk about it.  Breaking News:  7.5 Million children went hungry in America today.  But in today's LA Times, they fretted about the anti-Mormon elements in the Values Voter Conference (Jonah Goldberg: Morality not Theology), the Anti-Christian attitudes in Egypt ("Egypt's Petty Palm Embargo"), and a piece regarding the Nobel Prize for science ("Why Einstein was Wrong About Being Wrong").

Today in LA we seem to want to talk about religious intolerance, instead.

7.5 Million children who are living in extreme poverty in the land of plenty and The Grey Lady is only slightly less cuphineous.   In her opinion section, we can read about Scott Brown's body ("Naked in Massachusetts" ), why the OWS isn't worth our time (David Brooks' The Milquetoast Radicals), or why our economy is in real trouble ("This Time, It's Really Different") and why our government is unable to fix it ("Chipping Away at Gridlock").

We of the 99% recognize that the national debate is about saving the curtains or the carpet rather than extinguishing the fire that's consuming them.   We are tired of hearing about Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox, Dancing with the Stars, Mormon underwear, and Michael Jackson's Doctor.  We are frustrated and angry and looking for change because we are struggling mightily to try and make it, and we are becoming vocal because we believe that we have the right to do better than we are.

But the 22% aren't showing up.   Their electricity's been turned off.  They don't have any way to get downtown.   They're too hungry to bother and if my students are any indication, they don't hold out much hope for our efforts.

They never had insurance or a pension in the first place and they don't think that they're going to get either now.

So as we band together to keep ourselves from sliding into poverty to join them, as we rail against the excesses of the 1%, as we work to create change that benefits the 99%, I urge us all to fight a little longer and a little harder than we would if it were just ourselves we were fighting for.  There are millions of other Americans who are not yet standing up because they are just too fucking tired and we need to fight for them, too.  

Let's bring back the only War worth fighting in this country.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Watts-rich: The real meaning of income inequality in America

"You ball, right?" Donald, a new student, asked me as I was getting ready to walk away from his seat.

"I do ok," I responded, knowing what was coming. This wasn't the first time I'd had this conversation.

"How much you make?" Donald pressed.

I pivoted slowly back to face him and gave him a tired but friendly smile, "It's not polite to ask a man his salary," I told him.

"I don't mean disrespect," he assured me, "I just wanna know." The kid has big, friendly eyes that are made more engaging by his deep caramel color and wide grin.

I sighed and fell back to his desk. I told him my salary.

His eyes grew bigger. "Seriously? What's that..." He began to break it down by days, weeks, and months. When he'd arrived at a figure, he shook his head, "Naw, man. That can't be right." He showed me what he'd figured I earned per month.

I nodded, "That's right."

"You rich!" He smiled widely while shaking his head. My monthly salary made me competitive with the richest people he knew, including those who made their money illegally.

I started to shake my head, too. I wanted to tell him that I'm not rich, that I'm middle class, but it seemed inappropriate. Middle class is rich in Watts and it would be a lie to tell him otherwise.

Instead, I said: "For Watts, I am. Look, Donald, I seem rich to you because I do earn more money than most everybody you've ever met."

He nodded.

I wanted to continue, but I was stuck. I thought about telling him that it was all because of my college degree, or that it was the product of hard work, or even that, while I'm Watts-rich, I'm America-middle and for a Caucasian male with an advanced degree and thirteen years in a profession that I'm near the bottom of the financial heap.

But you don't tell a man who's intimidated by the hill in front of him that it's merely a foothill to the mountain behind.

Instead, I went for the PSA: "Education is the key, Donald. You remember what I told you about the difference between a drop-out and a college grad over a lifetime, right? One million dollars in earnings. That's why you're here with us. That's why you want to be doing well. I'm only ballin' because I did what you're trying to do now."

He laughed a rueful laugh. "You came up easy, dint'u?"

I smiled. "I made my own troubles, Donald, but you're right -- compared to here, I came up easy."

"So why you come down here?" He gestured with his chin to the whole neighborhood that pushed up against the ten-foot tall fence that surrounded the school.

"So I'd be somewhere where people thought I was ballin',"

He laughed. "Seriously, why you here?" The question had subtext and we both knew it. His experience had shown him that teachers in Watts fell into a very few categories and he needed help with my taxonomy.

"We've already established that I'm not returning to help kids like me. I'm also not here because it was the only place that would have me and I'm not here to build my resume," I watched him as he "x"'d out the possibilities as I rattled them off, "So I must be here because this is where I want to be."


"Because here I get to work with kids who kept looking for shortcuts in school. Y'all are the ones that I wished I could have gotten to when you were in my classes -- here I finally get to work with you and tell you that there are no shortcuts."

He looked down at his desk and shook his head. He mumbled something that I didn't hear.


He looked up at me. He wasn't smiling. "The NBA"

This one had an answer I knew. "Hey, man, do you know how many players there are in the NBA? About 300. That's 300 out of 360 million Americans and 300 out of 6.3 billion people worldwide. Even if you are a phenom, you gotta have a back-up plan. You could be the best in LA and still not make it in the NBA. You gotta have something else to fall back on. That's why school is important."

I felt like a good teacher for a moment -- don't tell him he won't make it, but make sure he thinks about what else he could do if it doesn't happen.

He smiled, but it wasn't because he had learned something, it was because he already knew it. He rolled up his pant leg and gestured to the long red scar that ran vertically down his knee. "I don't have NBA dreams no more. That shit's over."

And that's why he was with us. My school is for kids who've fallen behind, screwed up, got sent up, got knocked up, or simply had their dreams destroyed like Donald. We are one of only a very few paths for young people who are trying to pick themselves off the floor and Donald had been knocked flat. He looked at the work laid out on his desk and the lesson displayed on his monitor, sighed, and rolled his pants leg back down.

"Now I gotta do this." And it was obvious that he didn't want to. And it was obvious that he thought it was too much. And it was obvious that he wasn't sold on the return on his investment. In a neighborhood without money, time is currency and finishing high-school was going to take his entire roll.

"You'll do it, Donald. You're too smart not to."

As I walked away, I thought back to a conversation I'd had a while back with a man who earns nearly 10-fold my salary. He insisted that he was middle class. I insisted that he was rich, but he demurred, "Rich people earn at least a million a year. I'm not there yet."

And that's how bad income inequality has gotten in our country.

Those on the bottom cannot even see beyond the middle of the ladder and those on the middle rungs are spread so far apart that we mistake the highest point we can see for the top -- even though we know that far beyond them lies the rarified regions of those that are so wealthy that we can no longer simply call them rich. The historic definitions of rich are now so outmoded that those who meet them feel middle-class by comparison.

And those at the top of the ladder? They can't even see us. There are clouds between us and them.

And Donald and all of those like him in whom the foundation of the ladder is secured? I wonder what will happen when they realize how high the ladder they're holding goes and how few of them will ever get to climb it.