Students and educators should not be props for a failing president

Donald Trump, the failing president, had this to say yesterday about educators who feared that returning to schools too soon in a deadly pandemic would jeopardize their health and that of their students and communities:

“We don’t want people to make political statements and do it for political reasons. They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed. No way.”

Trump would do just about anything to divert attention from his utter failure and neglect during the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes. A few weeks ago, he even tried using the Bible for a political photo op, and that didn’t turn out too well.

Now, it’s the school kids’ and educators’ turn to risk their health and lives for the happiness of the man-who-would-be king. So far, his only interest in public education has been to privatize it.

The only politics being played here is by Trump and enablers, such as Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who are at his beck and call.

Children and the people charged with educating them should not be props for Trump’s struggling reelection effort.

Clay Robison

The segregation origins of private school vouchers put the lie to school choice “civil rights” claims

Calling school vouchers and other so-called “school choice” privatization efforts a “civil rights issue” is worse than spreading a simple political lie. It is an affront to the real civil rights heroes who lost their lives and freedom in the war against Jim Crow and to thousands of children of color who were deprived of decent educational opportunities before and during that era. The first vouchers actually were used to prolong school segregation as local officials in the South chose to circumvent, rather than comply with, court orders to integrate public schools.

But the “school choice-civil rights” claim has been made in recent years by, among others, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Sen. Ted Cruz and President Donald Trump. In a particularly offensive bit of timing, Trump called “school choice” the “civil rights statement of the year” at a White House briefing at the height of the demonstrations against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody.

Economist Milton Friedman usually is credited with the privatized “school choice” idea for education, which he explained in an essay published in 1955. But as recounted in a report published by the Center for American Progress, southern segregationists first put the idea into general practice. The first voucher system was believed to have been created by the Virginia General Assembly after the board of supervisors of Prince Edward County refused to levy local school taxes for the 1959-60 school year. The supervisors closed the school system, rather than integrate it, a few years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling of 1954.

The General Assembly called the new voucher system a “tuition grant program,” which offered elementary students $125 and high school students $150 to attend a nonsectarian private school or a high school in a nearby community. About the same time, private citizens raised the money to build and operate a private school, the Prince Edward Academy, to educate white children. It would become known as the first “segregation academy” and serve as a model for similar academies that soon would sprout up across the South. Black children were not allowed to attend this new academy or receive tuition grants to attend other schools.

Within a few years, after students protested against the public school closures, black and white community members in Prince Edward County agreed on a plan to temporarily operate free private schools for black students, which white students could attend. Private donations, including a contribution from the National Education Association, helped operate these Prince Edward Free Schools, as the black schools were called.

When the Supreme Court forced Prince Edward County to reopen its public schools in 1964, the board of supervisors appropriated $189,000 for the integrated public schools and $375,000 for tuition grants (vouchers) that white children could use in private schools in the county or public schools charging tuition outside the county.

By 1969, according to the American Prospect report, more than 200 private segregation academies had been set up across the South, and seven states – Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – had voucher programs encouraging white students to leave integrated public schools. Between the 1969-70 and 1970-71 school years alone, tens of thousands of white students enrolled in the segregation academies.

Eventually, the federal courts ended those programs. But the report noted, “Even contemporary race-neutral voucher programs can have the effect of exacerbating racial and socio-economic segregation.” And voucher programs as well as cherry-picking corporate charter schools take tax dollars from under-funded public schools, where the vast majority of students of all races and ethnicities are educated.

This isn’t a civil rights issue. It’s a hijacking spree.

The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers

Clay Robison

Give me “liberty” or give me health: Playing politics with the COVID mask

In these days of the coronavirus pandemic, it looks like the latest symbol of “liberty” – Gov. Abbott’s term, not mine – is the COVID mask, or, more precisely, the decision not to wear one. Liberty is a perfectly good, all-American word, which unfortunately is sometimes hijacked to put politics over public safety, as in claiming the “liberty,” as some do, to walk down the street with a fully loaded automatic rifle.

In this case, Abbott was responding to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff of San Antonio, who had asked the governor to issue a new executive order allowing local officials to require people to wear masks in their cities and counties if they felt masks were necessary for public safety. What prompted Wolff’s request was a new upsurge in COVID-19 cases, following Abbott’s decision to prematurely “reopen” Texas.

Abbott turned down Wolff’s request, explaining, “I believe in individual responsibility.”

“With every interview I’ve had on TV, I’ve talked about the individual responsibility to wear a face guard to make sure you don’t transmit COVID-19 or that you don’t get it,” the governor said. “It’s up to every individual in this state to make sure that we slow the spread of COVID-19…(But) it’s wrong to deprive someone of their liberty just because they’re not wearing a mask during the course of this challenge.”

That is a copout.

As Wolff pointed out, once a local requirement in San Antonio that residents wear masks in public was repealed by Abbott several weeks ago, fewer people are wearing masks and COVID-19 cases are increasing. Social distancing also is apparently becoming an afterthought on beaches and at many gatherings.

People who claim they have a right not to wear a mask and risk their own health miss the point. It isn’t just their health at risk. If they become infected and contagious, it also is the health of the grocery store clerk they may encounter or anyone else who crosses their path. The people they encounter, who have been wearing masks and taking other precautions, have a right to try to stay healthy without other people posing threats that could have been avoided.

Abbott was scolding people this week about not wearing masks, zeroing in on people in their 20s, a group that has seen a significant rise in COVID-19 cases. But they aren’t alone. Abbott can scold all he wants, but without an order backing him up, his message is weak.

The governor isn’t so much promoting “liberty” as he is pandering to President Trump and Trump enablers, who want to ignore this pandemic, pretend it is going away, give the American public a false sense of security and somehow revive the president’s troubled reelection chances. Abbott’s eagerness to reopen schools prematurely is part of this effort.

The charade also plays to a long-held American sense that our “liberty” also includes a right not to be terribly inconvenienced, not even by a deadly pandemic.

Clay Robison

The Drive-Thru Graduation Extravaganza

By COVID necessity, school graduations are coming in various forms and degrees of ingenuity this spring. There are the motor speedway variety, the football stadium version, the major league ballpark venue, the drive-in theater event and the Zoom virtual, maybe more.

Last Saturday morning, at Murchison Middle School in Austin ISD, there was the “Drive-Thru Graduation Extravaganza” for daughter Caroline and her eighth-grade classmates. During a two-hour window – with staggered time slots based on where last names fell in the alphabet – family cars, with the graduates’ names displayed in the windshields, drove slowly around the corner, up the line and then around the school’s front circle driveway past the front door, the normal drop-off spot for students every morning during a normal school year.

The last three months of this school year, of course, weren’t normal, but the drive-thru graduation was fun and greatly appreciated by my graduate, who wore a new red blazer for the occasion and rode shotgun, while her mother took video from the back seat.

The front lawn of the school was decorated with rows of colored photos of the graduates, courtesy of the PTA. Teachers and school staff, wearing masks, lined the driveway, holding signs and calling out to the graduates, and the kids returned their greetings. As we slowly drove past the front door, a school counselor with a microphone — and aided by the signs in the windshields — called out each graduate’s name.

The emailed instructions to the parents had been clear: “You may absolutely drive slowly/leisurely to enjoy the good vibes, but there will not be stopping and getting out.” And there wasn’t.

Through the open window, Caroline called out to teachers and administrators she recognized behind their masks and held out a sign reading, “We miss you guys.”

Our part of the drive-thru graduation lasted five minutes at most. We spent a lot longer in a Starbucks’ drive-thru line afterwards. But Caroline got a kick out of it, and so did her parents. We thank Principal Beth Newton, Assistant Principal Anthony Bromberg and all the Murchison teachers, staff and PTA for the thoughtfulness and hard work making it possible.

We returned to the school that afternoon to collect Caroline’s souvenir graduation photo from the lawn. Honor roll and other special recognitions will be emailed later.

No, a promotion from eighth grade is not a graduation from high school or college, but it is an accomplishment and a big deal for eighth graders. And I feel for the high school and college graduates who didn’t get to walk across the traditional stage or enjoy the real proms and real parties normally associated with these landmark accomplishments.

But I congratulate all of them and hope they and their families have stayed safe and well during this health crisis. I also hope everyone will be able to enjoy a more-normal graduation season next year.

Clay Robison