Tag Archives: racism

Sweetwater Schools Financial Problems Became Political Cudgel

9 Jan

The newly hired Chief Financial Officer of Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD), Jenny Salkeld, discovered a significant problem with the budget she inherited. She presented her findings to the Sweetwater leadership team in early September which forwarded her report onto the County Office of Education (COE). The SUHSD board also called in all bargaining units to suspend contract negotiations and inform them of the budgetary uncertainties. Sensationalism and subterfuge became the new reality in Chula Vista, California.

An October San Diego Union article reported,

“On June 25, the school board approved a budget for this school year that assumed the district had spent $328 million in unrestricted funding last school year and had $17 million in reserves going into this school year. In September, Salkeld presented a report showing that the district actually had spent $20 million more than that and started this school year with a negative reserve balance of $4 million.

“On top of spending more than previously estimated, the district received $6 million less in one-time state funding than it had expected.”

salkeld brief bio

After receiving Sweetwater’s alert about the accounting errors, the COE officially disapproved the 2018-19 budget the district had submitted. The reasons for disapproving the budget were the reasons Salkeld had reported. The county’s September 18 letter stated,

“The disapproval of the adopted budget is based on an assessment and analysis of the following major components of the district’s budget.

  • Preliminary 2017-18 negative unrestricted General Fund ending balance
  • Projected 2018-19 revenues overstated
  • Projected 2018-19 expenditures understated
  • Structural deficit in current and upcoming fiscal years
  • Cash concerns”

Apparently someone at the county leaked the budget information to the Voice of San Diego. The district which was in the process of understanding the extent of the problem did not have that opportunity. Instead they were faced with a withering public attack in both the San Diego Union and The Voice of San Diego. The headlines implied that a group of incompetent people at SUHSD were incapable of managing their affairs and were involved in possible fraud.

In the more than twenty reports in these two publications from September through December, it was obscured that it was the Sweetwater District which found the problem and informed the county. It was also never pointed out that budget analysts at the COE failed in their oversight responsibilities.

In November, the county approved Sweetwater’s revised budget.

Budget Shortfalls Throughout the State

Kristen Taketa reporting for the San Diego Union noted,

At least 10 districts in the county are projecting that they will not be able to meet their financial commitments next school year, including Chula Vista Elementary, Jamul-Dulzura Union, Mountain Empire Unified, Oceanside Unified, San Diego Unified, San Marcos Unified, San Ysidro, Sweetwater and Vista Unified. More districts won’t be able to meet their financial commitments after next year.

Teketa provided three reasons for what is a statewide public school funding problem:

  1. Rising pension costs: To address looming pension debt, the state in 2014 started increasing school districts’ share of pension costs. In 2013-14, school districts paid 8 percent of their teachers’ salaries to the state’s teacher pension fund. This year, they had to pay 16 percent.
  2. Rising special education costs
  3. Declining enrollment: Oceanside officials estimate that they can only compensate for 40 percent of revenue lost when they lose students. The student enrollment losses are attributed mostly to charter schools. California, unlike some states, does not financially mitigate the burden caused by charter schools on public school districts. The only option districts have is to reduce services to the remaining students.

Last May, In the Public Interest published a paper by University of Oregon’s Professor Gordon Lafer called “Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts.” He looked specifically at the impact of charter schools on San Diego Unified School District. Lafer found that the annual impact of student losses was $65,902,809 and that the cost per charter school student was $4,913.

By taking the 5500 students in charter schools instead of Sweetwater schools and multiplying that number by a conservative estimate of $4,000 in cost per student the total is $22,000,000 in stranded costs for the district; more than the budget error Salkeld discovered.

enrollment graphs

Charter Student Growth Compared with District Enrollment

What Caused the Budget Error?

Gene Chavira, President of the Sweetwater Education Association (affiliate of the California Teachers Association) said he believes this budget problem has roots that stretch back to the early 2000’s when Ed Brand was serving his first term as Superintendent. Chavira referenced some strange land sales from that period. Later, during Brand’s second stint as Superintendent, he and SUHSD CFO Diana Russo established two charter schools; another move Gene found suspicious.

The two charter schools were elementary schools belonging to SUHSD. The neighboring elementary school districts were unhappy and reacted by expanding their own charter schools to include the grades 7 – 12 that were serviced by Sweetwater.

After Brand came Jesus Gandara. In 2006, two Sweetwater board members, Jim Cartmill and Arlie Ricasa, flew to Texas and personally interviewed Gandara before he was hired as the Superintendent of Sweetwater schools. It appears that the board members and their search firm ignored some obvious warning signs when they made the hire. In 2011, the board voted to fire Gandara for abuse and brought back Ed Brand to lead the district. Another odd decision, since he had just been forced out as Superintendent of San Marcos Unified under accusations of nepotism.

In April of 2014, four of the five Sweetwater board members (Jim Cartmill, Bertha Lopez, Pearl Quinones and Arlie Ricasa) plus Superintendent Jesus Gandara pled guilty to corruption charges and resigned.

In 2015, five new board members and a new superintendent took leadership of SUHSD. Chavira recalled vividly that he and many others called on the new board to conduct a forensic audit, but the board – though for it in principal – rejected spending the more than $1,000,000 required. Chavira feels that was one of two big mistakes made. The second was that they did not replace the existing finance team.

board group photo 2018

2018 SUHSD Board – Standing from the left: Arturo Solis, Frank Tarantino, Nicholas Segura, Kevin Pike. Seated from the Left: Paula Hall, Student Member Brenna Pangelinan, Superintendent Karen Janney. Photo from District

Throughout the lead up to this current budget problem, the new board has been extremely popular. In the 2018 election, Hall, Solis and Tarantino ran for reelection unopposed. Professor Karen Janney was a student, a teacher and an administrator in SUHSD. She was forced out of the district by then Superintendent Gandara. After which, she taught education leadership at San Diego State University.

This group has accumulated some amazing talent and support. The 2016 audit committee added two new members, Maricela Garcia-Centeno and Bill Kowba making this a power house committee. Existing committee member, Trustee Paula Hall, works as a financial analyst in San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). Garcia-Centeno is a Certified Internal Auditor and Certified Fraud Examiner. Bill Kowba is a retired Rear Admiral who served both as Chief Financial Officer and Superintendent of SDUSD.

The audit committee’s 2016 report showed concerns regarding transparency and the need for more light shined on budget internals. They stated, “We are recommending the District direct the audit team so that work is not disproportionally focused on well regulated programs but performs a ‘deeper dive’ into areas that have potential of higher risk.

In 2017, the audit committee was recommendingdeeper testing for certain elements of the 2016-17 audit along with a recommendation for a special audit focusing on accounts payable, purchasing and contracts including ….” The implicit message was that the committee was not happy with the answers they were getting or perhaps not getting.

CFO Karen Michel and three members of her small team retired upon completion of the 2018-19 Sweetwater budget. All indications were that these were planned retirements.

After Salkeld’s report showing a $20,000,000 budget error, the county called in the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assist Team (FCMAT). On December 17th the FCMAT study was presented to the Sweetwater board. The Voice of San Diego reported,

“FCMAT’s chief executive officer Michael Fine told board members that 302 entries in the district’s accounting system were doctored to create the impression the district had more money than it really did. ‘That my friends and colleagues, is a cover-up,’ he said, …”

This is a puzzling statement. In the report Fine says, “While the district prepares budget revisions throughout the fiscal year, detailed information provided by the district shows that budget revisions totaling millions of dollars include negative budget entries that lack sufficient supporting documentation.”  His study comes to several conclusions tending against Sweetwater that lack strong evidentiary basis and it has no details about what he later labeled “a cover-up.” Now, Fine will be conducting a fraud audit. If he does not find fraud, won’t he be open to a libel charge? Can his audit be trusted?

A December 21st Voice of San Diego headline states, “County Ed Office Takes Control of Sweetwater’s Board.” The county had issued a “stay and rescind” order which gives them veto power over some decisions made by the SUHSD board. This begs the question, why did the county which dropped the ball here jump so quickly into this drastic step when the district team which found the problem has been addressing it aggressively?

The SUHSD web-site has a response to the issues raised. The opening paragraph says,

“Over the past few months the Sweetwater Union High School District has faced significant challenges with respect to our organizational budget. … We realize that these issues may seem insurmountable at times, but we want to assure you that despite some of the doubts being cast in the public, we are moving forward with a stabilization plan that will ensure positive financial health.”

There is also a letter from Superintendent Janney about the “stay and rescind” order. She cites remarks by Dr. Mark Skvarna, a financial advisor from the county, about the limitations on the order. Janney writes, “This authority is specific to the actions that are ‘inconsistent with the district’s ability to meet its financial obligations.’”

The San Diego Union and the Voice of San Diego are Biased Against Public Education

Editorials in the San Diego Union continually attack teachers and their unions. An editorial leading up to the 2018 general election called for a former banker and charter school chief as Secretary of Public Instruction (SPI). Following a familiar destroy public education (DPE) script; another editorial created a false crisis as the predicate for an urgent plea to elect charter school executive, Marshall Tuck, over California State Assemblyman, Tony Thurmond.

In 2005, Buzz Woolley founded Voice of San Diego. It was the first digital nonprofit news organization to serve a local community in the country. Besides his interest in using new technologies for media, Woolley also is enthusiastic about education technology in the classroom. In 2013 Woolley’s Girard Foundation sent over $500,000 to companies developing software for “personalized” education and competency-based education.

The year before starting the Voice of San San Diego, Woolley and Gap Founder Don Fisher established the Charter School Growth Fund. John Walton (Walmart heir) and Greg Penner (Walmart heir) joined the board. In 2016, that fund had assets of $217,176,094 with a yearly income of $95,184,785.

A local media watch dog report tells the story of an education reporter losing her job while perusing a store about the COE. Blogger Maura Larkins wrote,

“Voice of San Diego dropped its coverage of SDCOE attorney shenanigans, and laid-off its stellar education reporter Emily Alpert.”

“Voice of San Diego benefactors Buzz Woolley and Irwin Jacobs [founded Qualcomm], who claim to care about education, could have easily paid Emily’s salary with their pocket change if they’d wanted her to stay.”

“It seems Buzz Woolley, Irwin Jacobs and Emily Alpert weren’t on the same page.”

Some Concluding Words

Superintendent Janney may have been wrong to retain the inherited financial team; however, in 2015 she had a lot on her plate. A Trustee said that Janney began by focusing on education leadership in the district. There was a widely shared belief that several administrators were in positions by dint of cronyism and that many of them were incompetent. When she was alerted to the budget issue, Janney reacted professionally. She immediately informed stakeholders and the COE.

The budget error appears to have originated within the financial department. FCMAT Director Fine claimed it was a “cover-up.” Maybe he is right but he did not present much convincing evidence; only reporting that some entries that subtracted from the deficit were not sufficiently documented. It is hard to see the motive for financial professionals engaging in this “cover-up,” but people sometimes make strange decisions.

Two mainstream media outlets in San Diego that have regularly promoted privatizing public education and “corporate education reform” have been ruthlessly attacking SUHSD. They have indicated that the leaders in Chula Vista are incompetent and corrupt. The obvious dog-whistle here is that there are too many non-whites in SUHSD leadership.

The truth is that the SUHSD team is highly competent and has delivered a refreshing era of ethics and openness to the South-bay. Karen Janney is an educator with deep knowledge and experience, plus she is a gifted leader and public speaker. The present financial team led by Jenny Salkald is much more impressive than the county or state teams who have been nothing short of unprofessional.

The real investigation should be into whom or what is motivating this unjust attack on SUHSD? Also, why are we paying all those bloated salaries at the San Diego County Office of Education and for what?

“After the Education Wars”

19 Dec

Andrea Gabor has written another outstanding book. This latest is titled After the Education Wars. In it, she makes a radical departure from the top-down models of education reform that have dominated the last two decades. Gabor, a Bloomberg chair of business journalism, has applied her expertise toward analyzing modern education policy. Through five case studies she convincingly argues that business leaders brought the wrong lessons to education when they imposed Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management and shunned William Edwards Deming’s continuous improvement.

Taylor was a mechanical engineer who became intrigued by the problem of efficiency at work. He is widely viewed as inventing industrial engineering; his 1911 Principles of Scientific Management became the most influential book on American management practices during the twentieth century. In it he wrote,

It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.

Taylor was strongly anti-union. He saw them as wastefully introducing inefficiencies into the work place.

Andrea Gabor’s first book The Man Who Discovered Quality was about William Edwards Deming. That book was reviewed by Business Week in 1991. Some key statements in the review:

A trio of reverential new books celebrates Deming’s management principles. In Deming Management at Work, Mary Walton, a writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, focuses on how six organizations, including the U. S. Navy, have applied his methods. You get much of the same from both Rafael Aguayo’s Dr. Deming: The American Who Taught the Japanese About Quality and Andrea Gabor ‘s The Man Who Discovered Quality, even though their titles suggest biographical accounts. Aguayo, a former bank executive, essentially offers a schematic for putting Deming’s teachings to work.

Gabor, formerly a staff editor for this magazine and now a senior editor at U. S. News & World Report, provides far more insight into the man, which makes hers the most accessible and enjoyable of the three books. Born in Iowa, Deming grew up in a tarpaper shack in Wyoming. He earned a scholarship to Yale University, where he graduated in 1928 with a PhD in mathematical physics. He worked for the Agriculture Dept. and then the U. S. Census Bureau before the War Dept. sent him to Japan in the late 1940s to help rebuild that war-torn nation. Gabor vividly describes Deming’s early visits, using his personal diary to bring to life his rise to prominence.

The Business Week review ended with,

“How great is Deming’s influence in Japan? On the walls in the main lobby of Toyota’s headquarters in Tokyo, three portraits hang. There is one of the founder and one of the current chairman. But Deming’s is the largest of all.”

In 1979, Ford would lose a billion dollars and General Motors would lose a whopping 2.5 billion dollars. Many people blamed President Jimmy Carter. Industry leaders blamed unions and lazy workers. When out of desperation they called on Deming, he blamed management.

In the forward to her new book, Gabor highlights two key points of Deming’s teaching:

“Ordinary employees – not senior management or hired consultants – are in the best position to see the cause-and-effect relationships in each process …. The challenge for management is to tap into that knowledge on a consistent basis and make the knowledge actionable.”

“More controversially, Deming argued, management must also shake up the hierarchy (if not eliminate it entirely), drive fear out of the workplace, and foster intrinsic motivation if it is to make the most of employee potential.”

The Bush-Kennedy No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation with its test and punishment philosophy of education improvement was a clear violation of Deming’s core principles. Today, NCLB is widely seen as a damaging failure. Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) had a school “turn-around” strategy of hiring consultants or charter management organizations to fix schools that didn’t reach testing benchmarks. It was a consistent failure because they did not understand the cause and effect relationships starting with their completely incapable testing instrument for measuring failure.

Instead of removing fear from teacher ranks, NCLB and RTTT injected more fear into them. I am one teacher who will never forget the President of the United States congratulating the Central Falls, Rhode Island school board for firing all 88 teachers at Central Falls High School because the test scores were too low.

NCLB and RTTT were bad policy based on bad ideology. They embraced Taylorism and ignored Deming. However, there are wonderfully successful examples of schools and even states embracing Deming style continuous improvement through bottom up leadership. Gabor’s deeply researched book shares a few of their stories which demonstrate success in education leadership.

The Small School Progressives

The progressive education grassroots movement appears to have gotten its inspiration from Britain’s 1960’s open-education which had intellectual roots going back to Friedrich Froebel, John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Lillian Weber, a City College professor who studied in England brought open-education to the attention of New York’s reformers. That is where Deborah Meier became her star mentee. Sixties student activists Ann Cook and Herb Mack traveled to London in the 1960’s to observe open-education first hand. They became small school advocates consistent with Gabor’s description of the progressive leaders as “for the most part, anti-establishment ‘lefty hippies’…”

Gabor observed that surprisingly, these progressives ran schools that were lean, entrepreneurial and efficient.

One antidote from Gabor shows the stark difference between schools envisioned by the New York progressives and today’s no-excuses charter school leaders:

“As Meier, a protégé of Weber, explained it, the hallways and lobbies of schools ‘work best if we think of them as the marketplaces in small communities – where gossip is exchanged, work displayed, birthdays taken note of; where clusters of kids and adults gather to talk, read and exchange ideas.’”

In 1973, Tony Alvarado was named Superintendent of District 4 in New York City which is in a poor largely black and Latino neighborhood. Alvarado fostered an educator driven approach to school improvement. He encouraged educators to start new schools and schools within a school. Gabor notes, “Put simply, Alvarado was a master at fostering both improvements from grassroots up and creative non-compliance.”

In 1974, he heard about Deborah Meier and together they launched Central Park East which brought open-education to District 4. This was the first of what would eventually run into the hundreds of these small progressive schools across New York City. When Alvarado arrived, district four had the lowest reading score among the cities 32 districts. In ten years, it climbed to fifteenth.

Alvarado went to District 2 in 1988. It was ranked near the middle of the cities districts and in a decade it was ranked number 2.

Another important factor in the success of the New York Progressives was the support of Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools. As the small school movement progressed, Sizer’s organization and Meier’s Center for Collaborative Education provided important infrastructure such as training, funding and political support. The pedagogic emphasis was on learning depth over quantity which is one of the stated goals of the now loathed top down imposed common core state standards.

I cannot do justice to Andrea’s well written readable and engaging account of the New York’s small school progressives. However, I wanted to share this much because I have a personal experience with two of the protagonists of this story; Tony Alvarado and Deborah Meier.

Chapter four in Diane Ravitch’s startling change of view book The Death and Life of the Great American School System tells the story of the unlikely school reform effort in San Diego, California. A non-educator and politically connected former federal prosecutor, Alan Bersin, was named Superintendent of Schools in 1998. He was given carte blanche powers to reform the district.  Ravitch noted that San Diego was an unlikely place to launch a reform movement because it was seen as “one of the nation’s most successful urban school districts.”

Bersin was a Harvard man so he went to Harvard for direction and that is where he heard about District 2 in New York City and Anthony Alvarado. Bersin brought Alvarado to San Diego to be in charge of the education agenda while he took care of the politics.

For some reason, Alvarado completely abandoned his “grassroots up and creative non-compliance” that had led to such success in New York. In 1999, two-thousand teachers demonstrated at a San Diego Unified School District board meeting to protest the administration’s top-down mandates. Ravitch reported that the Bersin-Alvarado management employed “centralized decision making and made no pretense of collaborating with teachers.”

In 2002, my first teaching job was working under Bersin-Alvarado. It was a miserable experience characterized by fear and loathing everywhere. It seemed that besides the no-input mandates, there was a quota on number of teachers to be fired. The belief among teachers was a certain number teachers were to be fired as an example for the rest.

I was a fifty-one year-old first year educator teaching five sections of physics to ninth-graders at Bell Junior High School, a poor, non-white and low scoring school. My classes actually did well on the end of course exams including my honors class being the second highest scoring in a large district with many wealthy communities.

I was evaluated as “not moving my students to achieving standards.” A designation that meant I could not even apply to be a substitute teacher.

In 2015, I was able to spend an hour talking with Deborah Meier and her niece from Denver. Both of them were discouraged by the turn events in public education. Especially the niece from Denver was seeing little hope for the future of America’s public schools. Later, I investigated the destruction of Denver’s public education and I understand why she was so down.

I asked Deborah “what happened to your friend Tony Alvarado when he came to San Diego.” She had no explanation why he abandoned the model of teacher led continuous improvement after his own twenty-five year history of successfully applying it.

Deborah had been a larger than life figure to me for a few decades. When I had the opportunity to speak with her, I was so happy to discover that she is just as warm and humble as she is brilliant.

A Tale of Two States: Michigan and Massachusetts

Brockton, Massachusetts the birthplace of Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler is home to Brockton High School (BHS) famous for its athletics. By 1993, BHS became a rallying cry for school reform in the state. Even Republican Governor William Weld’s own commission agreed that BHS was not funded properly.

Gabor takes the reader through the motivation for Massachusetts’ education reform and its bottom up development.  She notes there was broad-based leadership from the governor, from business, from legislators, from the judiciary, from teachers and their unions. They created “a clear vision of what education reform should look like.”

There was a “grand bargain” to increase spending in exchange for increased accountability. A “collaborative, transparent, and iterative approach to developing both a new curriculum and a standardized test that became the graduation requirement” was carried out. Gabor writes, “… Massachusetts reforms grew out of a deliberate, often messy and deeply democratic process…”

Much of the story of the Massachusetts reform is told through the transformation of the giant 4,000 plus students BHS. It was the story of home grown reform led by locals who themselves attend BHS. They proved a large school can succeed. Gabor shares,

“Within a little over a decade, Brockton would go from one of the lowest performing schools in the state to one of the highest and, in 2009, it would be featured in a Harvard University report on exemplary schools that have narrowed the minority achievement gap. Today, 85 percent of Brockton students score advanced or proficient on the MCAS, the state’s standardized tests, and 64 percent score advanced or proficient in math.”

In 2010, Massachusetts abandoned parts of their successful education reform agenda in order to win a $250 million dollar RTTT grant. They abandoned their state standards and curriculum to adopt the Common Core State Standards. The result looks bad. It seems that after more than a decade of continuous improvement, progress has slowed or possibly reversed as suggested by National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) data.

Mass scale data

Graphs Created Using the NAEP Data Explorer

In the late 1990’s, Michigan and Massachusetts chose opposite paths of education reform. Michigan embraced school choice while Massachusetts rejected it. Massachusetts increased school spending. Michigan did not.  Michigan imposed school reform in a top-down fashion with little educator input. Massachusetts embraced educator contributions to education reform. Eighth grade math NAEP results provide stunning evidence for which choices were better.

Comparing Mich and Mass

The Nations Report Card Provided the Data

Conclusions

Gabor found a school district in Texas that embraced Deming’s quality ideas thirty-five years ago. Leander school district is non-urban and is in a right to work state in the middle of a mostly white Christian and Republican community. I find this all important, because it shows that the continuous improvement model led by educators, students and parents works in any political environment. It is not a red state – blue state or union dependent thing. It shows Deming’s leadership principles are sound and perhaps universal.

I met Andrea Gabor in Raleigh, North Carolina at the Network for Public Education conference of April, 2016. She had come there from New Orleans accompanied by friends she made there while researching this book. For a guy like me who grew up in rural mostly white Idaho and then moved to pluralistic California to serve in the integrated US Navy, the story of profound and continuous racism in New Orleans were beyond my ability to apprehend. There was a conscious centuries long effort made there to limit education among the black population!

When all of the black professional educators in New Orleans were fired after hurricane Katrina and replaced with mostly white college graduates from Teach for America, it was a continuation of that same centuries of racial injustice.

In Raleigh, Andrea made it clear that she was not anti-charter school and in her book she presents the story of one particularly successful school, Morris Jeff, that exemplified the Deming approach. Morris Jeff is one of the few mixed race schools in New Orleans and their students are outperforming the cities “no-excuses” charters.

Bottom line, this is a special book and I encourage you to read it. It’s ideas are both thought provoking and promising.

History of Institutional Racism in U.S. Public Schools

20 Jun

By T. Ultican 6/20/2018

Susan DuFresne a pre-school and special education specialist from Seattle, Washington just published the book History of Institutional Racism in U.S. Public Schools. Dufresne is also a self-taught artist with a heart that screams for justice. She began her project with three fifteen feet long four feet high pieces of canvas and painted images of racial injustice and its effect on schools from the 16th century until today. These illustrations are supported by the notes Susan developed about each issue depicted and hand wrote in the margins.

I met Susan in 2014 at Seattle’s iconic Westgate Park, home of political expression and protest for five decades. For me, it brought back childhood memories of a 1962 trip with my parents and a sister to the Seattle World’s Fair. At Westgate Park, my family boarded the mono-rail for the fairgrounds now called the Seattle Center, still home of the Space Needle and today, home to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That 2014 teacher’s march was the first public event organized by the Washington State Bats. We were protesting the Gates Foundation. Two motorcycle police went ahead of us closing streets to cross traffic and we happily marched toward the Seattle Center to enthusiastic cheers from locals along the route.

Marching in Seattle 2014

  1. a) Making Signs in Westgate Park Before the March b) Anthony Cody and Susan DuFresne Lead 250 Bats Toward the Gates Foundation – Photo by Ultican

Last year, I met Susan again at the National Public Education (NPE) annual conference in Oakland, California. She displayed her amazing art work in the main conference room. The room was large enough to accommodate more than 1,000 people seated at round tables. Her illustrations covered most of the north wall.

I would be very surprised if Susan could pick me out of a lineup, but she certainly made a positive impression on me.

School teachers in general abhor injustice and activists like Susan are particularly sensitive to the least protected among us. Garn Press, who is publishing Susan’s book says of her,

“Susan DuFresne is an artist and educator who advocates across all intersectional groups, organizing for social justice. She works alongside colleagues and friends who are leaders in the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Badass Teachers Association. She is a vocal supporter of Indigenous peoples, the Women’s Movement, and LGBTQIA activists, and cares deeply about environmental issues.”

“One of the important battles she fights is for democratically run schools, as well as a child’s right to play. She pushes against the use of high stakes testing, agreeing with many students, parents, and educators who denounce these tests as racially biased, advocating for their right to opt out.”

Both Susan and her publisher have pledged to donate a part of net profits to Black Lives Matter and to the Lakota People’s Law Project.

Yohuru R. Williams is Professor of History, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. In a foreword to Susan’s book he wrote,

“As a historian of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements I am keenly aware of the power of art, in all of its forms, to rouse interest, stir the conscience, and encourage resistance to inequality. Inspired by the need to communicate a deeper truth, the poet’s words, the dancer’s feet, and the artist’s palette explode with an unharnessed creativity driven by a desire to educate, instigate and re-imagine.”

“United States Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis is fond of sharing that one of the primary inspirations for him to write to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and join the Civil Rights Movement was a 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which in vivid illustration told the story of Dr. King, Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Beyond a mere recounting of those events the comic was also an education tool, identifying various ways that young people could get involved with the movement following what it termed the “Montgomery Method,” Nonviolent Direct-Action protest strategies derived for, and aimed at toppling segregation without losing sight of the shared humanity of the oppressor and the oppressed.”

The Dark History of Ignorance and Bigotry

Panel 1

NPE Oakland 2017 Photo of Susan’s Original Panels (1) – Photo by Ultican

The foundations of America have some very unsavory aspects. Susan illustrates these realities of racism dehumanizing people with different features and languages. She makes the point that this history is not being appropriately studied. This opportunity to remove the talons of evil that led to injustice is not being exercised. Those dark tendencies are still plaguing modern society and children are growing up ignorant of this hidden heritage.

In two of the panels DuFresne addresses the atrocities foisted upon the indigenous peoples of America.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson, just a year after taking office, narrowly pushed through a new piece of legislation called the “Indian Removal Act”. In an infamous 1838 episode depicted on one of Susan’s panels, the US government sent in 7,000 troops to remove the Cherokee nation from the Carolinas. They forced the Cherokees into stockades at bayonet point. They were not allowed time to gather their belongings, and as they left, whites looted their homes. Then began the march known as the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease on their way to the western lands.

By 1837, the Jackson administration had removed 46,000 Native American people from their land east of the Mississippi and had secured treaties which led to the removal of a slightly larger number. Most members of the five southeastern nations had been relocated west, opening 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery.

Supreme Court Rules Segregation Legal

The Plessy versus Ferguson court case of 1896 ended in a 7 to 1 decision by the US supreme court ratifying segregation. In this case, a shoemaker named Homer Plessy who happened to have one black great-grand-parent purposely broke Louisiana’s Jim Crow law that require black people to use separate facilities from whites. In the key passage of the opinion, the Court stated that segregation was legal and constitutional as long as “facilities were equal.” Thus the “separate but equal doctrine” that would keep America divided along racial lines for over half a century longer came into being.

DuFresne put Plessy on the same panel of art as the “science” of eugenics that “proved” white people superior. The 1905 IQ tests developed by Alfred Binet were also used to justify forced sterilization. One of Susan’s notes says that the last forced sterilization in America occurred in Oregon (1981). Clinical psychologist Natalie Frank states,

“The eugenics movement began with the advent of testing for individual characteristics in children. Although intelligence testing was created to determine school readiness, it became one of the unintended foundations of eugenics. This occurred when three of the influential psychometricians, Lewis Terman, Henry Goddard and Robert Yerkes, began advocating testing as a method of differentiating who should be permitted to reproduce based on intelligence. These scientists built momentum for the idea of selective breeding and the call for using the process to strengthen the gene pool was taken up by some of the upper echelon of American and European society.”

Panel 14

NPE Oakland 2017 Photo of Susan’s Original Panels (2) – photo by Ultican

Dictionary Dot Com defines eugenics: “the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”

Binet died in 1911 after having warned against the test’s potential for misuse, calling the notion that intelligence could not be improved a “brutal pessimism.” By 1916, Stanford’s Lewis Terman had come to quite a different conclusion. He wrote,

“The fact that one meets this type [feebleminded individuals] with such extraordinary frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods. 

“Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”

Terman’s reasoning has been updated and today it is used to justify privatizing public schools. The drill and skill pedagogy and discipline practices of the no excuses charter school movement flourishes in politically weak minority communities. It is child abuse justified by bigotry.

It is the same irrational ideology that has led to today’s high profit standardized testing industry. In fact, Carl C. Brigham, the father of the SAT, became interested in mental testing while a student a Princeton. He later became a psychology professor at the university, where he was an enthusiastic member of the eugenics movement. During the 1920s he developed his own objective admissions test for students applying to Princeton.

A Frontline story on PBS reported,

“Brigham later worked on the Army Alpha Test, an intelligence test given to millions of recruits during World War I. In 1923, he wrote A Study of American Intelligence, which analyzed the findings of the Alpha Test by race. Its conclusion, which Brigham insisted was without prejudice, was that American education was declining and ‘will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.’”

The Authors Motivation

About creating this massive work of art and latter turning it into a book, Susan shares,

“I thought too of the African men, women and children who were brought to America and enslaved. The Southern Poverty Law Center has raised the concern that even today public school students still do not study slavery or consider how racism and discrimination impact the lives of children and their families. With a marker I wrote the following notes in the margins of the first panel.

  • Enslavement of Indigenous people, Native Americans, murder and disease enabled the colonizers to seize land.
  • Enslavement of Africans enabled profit as well.
  • Oppressive schooling became possible via acts of terror.”

“Notes for panel 5:

  • 1899 – Supreme Court allows a state to levy taxes on Black and white citizens alike while providing a public school for white children only. (Cumming v. Richmond, (GA) County Board of Education).
  • 1893 – Mandatory education for Indian children in Boarding Schools – Native language forbidden. If parents refused, annuities or rations could be withheld or send them to jail. Educators had quotas to fill. Many died at school.
  • 1913 – U.S. v. Sandoval, Supreme Court, American Indians ‘simple, uninformed & inferior people’ – incapable of citizenship.”

Destroy Public Education Movement

Dufresne concludes her history by addressing the modern forces that are destroying public schools in poor non-white neighborhoods.

Panel 11

NPE Oakland 2017 Photo of Susan’s Original Panels (3) – Photo by Ultican

The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act used the tools developed by the eugenicists to label the schools of black and brown children failures. The standardized testing used to destroy their schools had “roots deeply embedded in racism.”

Susan highlights Secretary of Education in the Obama administration, Arne Duncan’s infamous statement, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was hurricane Katrina.” This statement is disgusting and makes it clear that the attack on schools in minority communities is bipartisan. It is not conservatives or liberals attacking public education. It is wealthy elites who lead both the conservative and liberal movements in America destroying the foundations of democracy because they fear it.

Conclusion

I have touched briefly on a small portion of the historical abuse of “those people’s children” that Susan is teaching about. As I was writing this, I looked closely at each panel of art and their associated notes. The more I looked the more I saw. This work exemplifies the creative use of art to teach. It shines a light on injustice motivated by racism and the damage reeked.

Every school library at every level should contain this book and have it prominently displayed. Every parent should get this book and study it with their children. This book is a masterpiece of art and history.