The teachable moment escaping Occupy Oakland

The Occupy Oakland protest has gone national as it has continued to grow and generate controversy. From someone who has lived in Oakland previously and has worked there for more than a decade in various roles, the education component of the Occupy Oakland movement is disturbing. Educators appear to be missing one of those classic “teachable moments” not only in Oakland, but also with the entire Occupy movement.

During the general strike on Nov. 2, almost 15 percent of Oakland Unified School District teachers left their students to participate in the strike for the whole day. One school’s entire faculty participated. Although Oakland Unified has shown some improvement in recent years, it remains a troubled district by any measure. The graduation rate is 53 percent and the official dropout rate is 37 percent, though many suggest those statistics underestimate the real dropout statistic. For those that actually remain, 48 percent of juniors are below or far below basic on the California Standards Test in English and 62 percent of the district is below or far below basic in Algebra. So the premise that the district should have facilitated mass teacher participation in a demonstration that they could easily have joined after the academic day seems flawed.

The damage from the financial and banking excesses and downright bad public policy decisions of the last decade is very real, but the story is much more complex than a selfish 1 percent consciously victimizing an innocent and unwilling 99 percent. Yet simplistic generalizations and slogans continue to dominate the discussion. The 99 percent have not been, for the most part victims, but rather enablers and participants in creating the situation we find our society in currently.

For example, in our education system, which is the theme here, the debate is still polarized around how to fix a system that clearly is not successful for millions of American children and their families. A fundamental question that those who resist change never seem to answer is how can we triple educational spending in real terms over the last 30 years and see minimal academic improvement while other countries spend less and outperform us. The only message from the Oakland Education Association, the teachers union, during the strike is that they are victims of budget cuts, yet until just the past few years, education spending in California grew rapidly and consistently. California kids at all demographic points trail the rest of the nation and overall the United States trails the world’s major countries in academic performance. Something else must be going on in education other than budget cuts, yet the education status quo is stubbornly resistant to change.

Elsewhere in our society parents have nearly absolute authority and responsibility for their children, yet in education a faceless, albeit well-meaning in most cases, government official assigns children by ZIP code to a school without ever even meeting them. As Jack Coons noted in an earlier post here, “passivity and despair are the response of powerless parents,” particularly in inner cities. But parents in both low-income and middle-class communities are now starting to question why half their high school graduates can’t do college level work and have to be remediated and why their college graduates aren’t prepared for the 21st century workforce. Thousands of jobs in technology, science, and health care are unfilled because candidates are unqualified. Why aren’t we preparing students for the real world? We are beginning to see parents insist on reclaiming the authority for educating their children and for changing the outcomes. It is late and overdue, but it is happening despite the edublob’s resistance.

This reclaiming of both responsibility and authority seems to be directionally correct for addressing many of the real problems that the Occupy movement has correctly identified. The 99 percent are hardly a powerless group. They changed the U.S. Congress and state governors and legislatures dramatically in each of the last three elections, but in schizophrenic ways searching for the easy way out that involves goring someone else’s ox.
We are where we are today because a solid, if not overwhelming, majority of the 99 percent embraced or continue to embrace such things as:

  • Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs that have $61 trillion in unfunded promises, which translates to $528,000 per U.S. household. This is clearly unsustainable and reductions have to be made that affect the “100 percent.”
  • Initiating two wars and simultaneously substantially cutting taxes for everyone. In fact, 47 percent don’t pay any income tax at all. The richest country in the history of the world is going bankrupt because the feeling that we can have it all without paying for it has permeated the entire society for the last 30 years.
  • Excluding the cost of employer paid health care benefits from taxable income, which in just the next five years will be the equivalent of a $1.1 trillion tax expenditure that subsidizes mostly the middle class. As employees perceive health care as free or heavily subsidized, they utilize the health care system more intensively, further driving up costs.
  • Continuing the home mortgage interest deduction for mortgages up to $1 million, a $609 billion tax expenditure over five years that benefits almost exclusively the upper middle class.

Occupy is correct that the 1 percent has benefited disproportionately from policies we as a collective democracy have supported repeatedly in the last three decades, but casting the 99 percent as victims who don’t share a significant responsibility to set things right makes getting to a solution more difficult. Some in the 99 percent undoubtedly were victims, but you are only allowed to be a victim for a limited time and then you have to step up and move forward.

We need more messages out of the 99 percent that fixing this economic and educational mess involves not just asking the 1 percent to step up to do larger fair share, but also that we must collectively rethink how to realign the expectations and benefits we want with what we are willing to pay for. Educators, along with the media, that fail to balance the discussion with the reality that all of us must be part of the solution and exercise our authority to restore a sensible economic order to the country are failing us. Walking out of classrooms, especially ones where so many students are struggling and underperforming, is just one small example of that failure.

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BY Peter H. Hanley

Peter H. Hanley is director of Discovery Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education, the successor to the American Center for School Choice. The Center remains dedicated to bringing school choice to the center of the political spectrum since Peter led the merger in June 2015. He successfully created the national Commission on Faith-based Schools, which continues at Discovery, to improve the understanding of the important part these schools have in American education and the need for expanding public support for parental choice. In addition, he is the board president of a charter management organization with schools in Oakland and Richmond, California, sits on a Waldorf-inspired charter school board in Oakland, and is in his fourth term as an elected board member in San Mateo, California.