Because it is so well researched and presented, Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education, is a frustrating read. To tell the story of privatization, segregation, & the end of public education requires a massive cast. In her book Dr. Noliwe Rooks, my guest today, runs a precise thread from Reconstruction, Nelson Rockefeller, & Brown v Board through to Milton Friedman, every president in my lifetime, Teach for America, KIPP charter schools, Mark Zuckerberg, & more. Segrenomics has the kind of power that will be viewed with suspicion in states most impacted by it which are cracking down on theoretical frameworks that attempt to provide structural, systemic explanations.
An interdisciplinary scholar, Noliwe Rooks’ is the chair of and a professor in Africana Studies at Brown University and the founding director of the Segrenomics Lab at the school. Her work explores how race and gender both impact and are impacted by popular culture, social history and political life in the United States. She works on the cultural and racial implications of beauty, fashion and adornment; race, capitalism and education, and the urban politics of food and cannabis production.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks is a professor and chair of Africana Studies at Brown University and the founding director of the Segrenomics Lab. Her research focuses on the interplay between race, gender, popular culture, social history and political life in the US. She is the author of four books and numerous articles, essays and op-eds. Her most recent book is Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.
0:00:00.0 Noliwe Rooks: It became clear at every decade that I looked at from 1877 at the end of the Reconstruction period up through 2015, which then was the present that I was writing in, that there had never been a deep disruption of segregation as a fundamental and key feature of education for certain folks, and as a money making and business and marketing opportunity for a whole other group of people.
0:00:36.3 Nick Covington: Hello. And welcome to episode 127 for podcast at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Nick Covington. This episode is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Timothy Fawkes, Corinne Greenblatt, and Kyle Prince, thank you so much for your ongoing support. You can find out more about our work at humanrestorationproject.org.
0:01:00.3 NC: Because it is so well-researched and presented, Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education is a frustrating read. To tell the story of privatization, segregation and the end of public education requires a massive cast. In her book, Dr. Noliwe Rooks, my guest today, runs a precise thread from Reconstruction, Nelson Rockefeller and Brown v. Board, through to Milton Friedman, every president in my lifetime, Teach For America, KIPP Charter Schools, Mark Zuckerberg and more. Segrenomics has the kind of power that will be viewed with suspicion in states most impacted by it, which are cracking down on theoretical frameworks that attempt to provide structural and systemic explanations. An interdisciplinary scholar, Noliwe Rooks is the chair of and a professor in Africana Studies at Brown University and the founding director of the Segrenomics Lab at the school. Her work explores how race and gender both impact and are impacted by popular culture, social history and political life in the United States. She works on the cultural and racial implications of beauty, fashion and adornment, race, capitalism and education, and the urban politics of food and cannabis production.
0:02:30.7 NC: Dr. Noliwe Rooks, thank you so much for joining me today.
0:02:34.0 NR: Thank you so much for having me.
0:02:36.0 NC: Well, let's dive right into... Let's just start with that title, particularly the subtitle there, Cutting school: The Segrenomics of American Education. In the book and elsewhere, you coined the term segrenomics to describe the phenomenon that you support in excruciating detail throughout the book. So for listeners who haven't yet read the book, who might be curious, would you describe segrenomics and its relation in particular to what you call our apartheid education system, and how are those ideas related?
0:03:07.0 NR: Thanks so much for that, for reading the book, taking the time to pull out what's key about it, and I hope as we have more conversation, we can connect some of these ideas to what we see unfolding here in our present. At its most basic kind of form, segrenomics is just a mashup of segregation and economics. And part of how I arrived at it was really thinking about how consistent a thread, how consistent a narrative, the wealth-making opportunities for big businesses, for philanthropists really work for segregated, unequal education. The question that I initially started with is really, given all of our pronouncements around wanting to have equal education in the country, given the lip service that we give, the rhetoric that's very much a part of education as public education as a kind of foundational piece of who we take ourselves to be in the United States, it situates us against most of the rest of the world. We're having public education readily available to everyone, not having to come out of your pocket to be educated, just doesn't happen elsewhere. And yet, there was this thread of this consistent kind of under-education of certain groups of folks in the United States and a difficulty with those groups having access to quality education.
0:04:46.5 NR: What is a shorthand really just for the kind of education that wealthy kids and White kids regularly enjoy, not perfect, but it provides services and certain kinds of classes and certain kinds of infrastructure. And when I started to write the book, at least initially, I was looking for a space where this dream of equal education encompassed indigenous people, Black people or White people, rural people. It wasn't happening in 2006, 2007. When I first started to do the research I could see clearly there are these intractable kinds of problems and issues around education that break down around status and class and ethnicity and race regular. But I thought that that was really speaking about what was happening in our contemporary moment. I didn't know enough about the history of education. I knew the myth of it, I knew the language around it, I knew we common schools and citizenship, and the way that we become a melting pot, and it's this, the promise of education to give you the opportunity to make the world better for you and generations who come after you, if you apply yourself. Go to college, get the information that you need and get a job.
0:06:15.3 NR: I thought that the lack of those things being true really had to do with the 20th century kind of phenomenon, that there was some moment that I'd be able to identify where something else was going on until I kept backing up further and further and further in history. At least initially, I was kind of like, it's cool to you but certainly after, right after Brown v. Board in 1954, I can probably find it not so much. Okay, well, let's just go right back to a little bit before Brown v. Board. Yeah, not so much. Okay, well, let's come a little bit forward and then see what's happening during Nixon's administration, and let's see if that's where there were some moments before what I understood is the forces of my present began to tear apart opportunity and all of the pretty words and pretty rhetoric and make unavailable to large swaths of the country. And what I kept backing up into, was that from the earliest moments that I could identify in ways that were just not talked about in literature that I could find, public education when it was first, taxpayer supported, compulsory education is a phenomena that really kind of enters the US following the Civil War during a period called Reconstruction. And while in other parts of the country, there were...
0:07:45.5 NR: You could go to school, there was public education some places, where I live, I live in Providence, Providence, Boston area. There was a big horseman was one of the fathers of this thing called the common school, who's a student here at Brown. And you could find little moments where that was working. However, from those earliest moments though, where the expansion of multiracial democracy spread into this idea that all children, poor children, Black children, the children of slaves, that the state had a responsibility to collect taxes and make education possible for them. That should be a triumphant kind of moment, a triumphant kind of story, where we are as a nation really living, I think the ideals that we have and the rhetoric that we express in the Constitution and elsewhere about who we are. And yet as I researched that moment, what became clear was, the same forces that I was identifying in the 21st century, the philanthropist and businesses and corporations crafted in education specifically for poor White people that looked nothing like the education that was for poor Black people. Poor Black people, newly free Black people were supposed to be trained in the trades, they were supposed to be taught vocational kinds of skills. There was none of the...
0:09:23.4 NR: Let your mind soar, become an artist, become a... It was, can you make bricks? Let's teach you how to farm with technical specificity, and that this kind of education, depending on segregation, it depended on having Black people and poor people and indigenous people live in areas of the country or in places where it was just them, and then the prescriptions for what you do and what you teach them and how you pay for it were very similar. But something different entirely was happening for wealthy people and White people. And so that's a really long way of coming around to say it became clear at every decade that I looked at from 1877 at the end of the Reconstruction period up through 2015, which then was the present that I was writing in, that there had never been a deep disruption of segregation as a fundamental and key feature of education for certain folks, and as a money making and business and marketing opportunity for a whole other group of people. And that was something that I hadn't seen before, I hadn't seen anybody talk about it. I didn't think about segregation as part of a business plan, as an educational ideology that these business plans for companies which at the time was things like Teach for America and the rise of charter schools, and I hadn't thought about how much money they were making and how dependent they were on poverty and the segregation of racial and economic poverty, people who were poor and or Black or indigenous.
0:11:20.2 NR: They had to be those things in order for them to make money, in order for these businesses to make money. They were failed business plans in the absence of segregation, so honestly, just started to wonder, is it the reason that we have this intractable problem, this thing that we keep saying we're trying to solve. We keep coming up with ways to deal with how racially specific educational achievement is and educational access, but is part of the reason it's so hard to solve is there's simply too much money to be made in having people be segregated and offering to educate them outside of the public education system that many people pay a lot of money in taxes to keep going.
0:12:06.5 NC: There is not only I think the... There is the economic incentive, but I also do think that there's the ideological incentives that are in place for the kinds of solutions that we look for in order to live up to that promise that you're speaking of. It's curious to kind of think of. In my head, I had imagined the research for the book proceeding in the opposite direction, say starting at Reconstruction and pulling it through, but it's so much more interesting to think of where you were looking for the genesis of that issue, and kept going back to the time where we were supposed to have lived up to these promises as a nation. And then going back and back and further back and [chuckle] back even further and finding those stories along the way and telling it in that chronological order. So it really is, there are those ideological incentives that just prevent us from addressing that solid issue of segregation in the first place. There are the ideological incentives to want to provide those private solutions to those bigger sociological problems that don't address the sociological problems but then ultimately make somebody a massive amount of private wealth perhaps in the short term until they can get on to the next thing.
0:13:20.3 NC: And I wonder, so much of what I had read in this book as a supporter of public education, but also someone who lives in that tension, understanding that that public system has not served all students particularly well, be it for ableist reasons or for explicitly or implicitly racial reasons, and of course, there's issues across the board and the systems and structures today pedagogically, all of it. And it all comes down to living in that tension of having failed to live up to that promise for all kids, so I really do...
0:13:54.0 NC: I kind of wonder then if there is room to talk about the intervening space and kind of where you've seen since the book has come out, the three years of having lived in a global pandemic that similarly exploited those cracks within American socioeconomics. I recall reading an article in early 2020 that read something, the headline read something to the extent of, the pandemic didn't break America, it revealed what was already broken. And in a lot of ways, I think this book plays that same role, so how have you seen the similar phenomenon at work since the book came out back in 2017? What would you include in Cutting Schools 2.0, Cutting Schools revisited if you were given the opportunity?
0:14:38.4 NR: Well, okay, there's two things, one, just the COVID responses and two, if Cutting School 2.0 was coming out in the, say, six months from now, Florida, the entire state of Florida. I have a chapter in the book about Florida that I would expand aggressively based on what's happened. For the first part though, about COVID, I think one of the interesting phenomena that came up for me watching this, having researched so many periods of time where all of a sudden, you have wealthy White parents or wealthy White people or high status White people, all of a sudden profess great and deep concern about the education and lives of poor Black and Brown kids. There's moments when this happened. It happened during the Civil War, happened during Brown v. Board, episodically you have philanthropists who every so often have jumped up to say, "We really care about this." And when I was at Princeton, and I left in 2012, so a few years before that, I was taken by the fact that I had so many very privileged, very wealthy students who all of a sudden wanted to talk to me about how bad the public education system was for poor kids and how they needed to change it and we need to...
0:16:09.6 NR: And one thing, so given that lens, given that one of the things that I haven't... I didn't pull out and make it a narrative, but it was information that I had. When groups of wealthy White people discover poor people or poor kids of color and say, "I want to fix education for you," you need to run. This is what I know, you need to go in the other direction, hard. You need to fight back, hard. You need to look for what's broken because the ways that all of a sudden we have people saying, "Put them back in school, get rid of... They're going crazy, people are committing suicide," the pathos that was elicited by journalists and scholars, and just some shysters who just wanted attention quite frankly. But the amount and the depth of the pathos would lead you to believe there was an educational movement afoot that was not that far removed from the language that you heard when I first started writing the book for KIPP and ed reform people. Where ed reform people would consistently say they were overwhelmingly, White, overwhelmingly wealthy. And most of them, at least the ones I've met at Princeton, would tell you they had not grown up with any going to these schools, knowing anything about these neighborhoods and they knew nothing. But all of a sudden they wanted to come and fix it. All of a sudden, you have mainstream press, people who are telling stories.
0:17:48.6 NR: I went and befriended a poor Black child during the pandemic because I was so heartbroken, offering no systemic solutions other than open the school, because I think it should be open. And at the same time, oh, look how I'm getting all of this financial compensation from different kinds of groups and think tanks for saying this with rarely, if ever, talking to any teachers, parents or caregivers who disagreed with what they were saying. So in that moment, it was hard for me to separate and if I were doing the book again, I would do a deep dive here. I'm teaching a class on racism and education, and I literally in the first week, will be doing a deep dive into how these narratives of Black despair, pathos, blah blah. And this kind of capping, my students call it capping in how Superman capes for things, how you decide you're gonna put on your cape and come in and we're gonna save it. The racial dynamics of that, that had nothing to do with systemically fixing what was broken in anybody's home, community or school, but was just about getting the ideological payoff that they were going for. And what that allowed for...
0:19:10.0 NR: And, again, what I would talk about. What that allowed for was completely overlooking what communities were doing successfully to educate those kids. You never... The only stories you saw were, "The kid has started harming himself." And I don't mean to make light of that. I do not. The pandemic was hard for all of us. The isolation, the misinformation, not knowing who you could trust, people are getting sick, people are dying. There was a panic. But these same people are sort of like, "There's a panic, but let's not focus on that. Let's focus on the fact that these children need school." But then in communities, you had some places like Los Angeles that is very well organized, both unions... There are people of color who are from those communities in positions of authority all throughout the educational system in Los Angeles. They're doing a pitched battle right now with billionaires trying to take over stuff, but they are all over. And what they were doing with their kids, early on, I was saying this should be a model that everybody should be for.
0:20:24.2 NR: The first thing they did was like, "We're gonna figure out how to make sure everybody gets fed regularly. That's not going away. It's not a conversation. We're not even waiting for the federal government. We will make sure we understand we can't have... Pandemic or no, we cannot have people hungry." They were creative in how they went about educating kids. One of the things that they did out there was they made a partnership with public education, with the public access channels. And what they were saying is, "We keep hearing that not everybody has internet. Not everybody does. People of color and poor people tend to use their phones for internet access. And you can't really, very well, be successfully take a class on your phone 'cause one, it's expensive, but there's just all kinds of functionality that's not there for you. And it's like upwards of 60% in some communities, 70%, who don't have it. So they're like, "This is not going to be some sort of Waterloo for us. We're gonna partner with public access because all these kids have TVs in their home, or 90% of these same kids who don't... "
0:21:37.6 NR: And they had this sort of rotation for what they were teaching at what time on public access. You could call in and ask questions. You could watch your teacher or a teacher teaching the subject that was supposed to be part of the curriculum. Sometimes, they had students come in to the studio so it felt more like a classroom. It wasn't a silver bullet, but it was an attempt to create community, maintain community, and teach in the midst of it. I don't think it's any kind of surprise then that Los Angeles, on these NAEP scores, which these same, you shouldn't have closed schools, people are running around going, "Oh my god, see, we've lost learning." Right, we've also lost bodies and jobs. We've lost a lot of things. But the scores, test scores, standardized test scores went up in Los Angeles County. They didn't stay the same. They went up. They gained ground. And in the midst of all of this concern and pathos, what this predominantly people-of-color-led district did for their poor and of color students didn't become a model for the country. Nobody mentions it. Nobody knows it, really for the most part, or it's... When you hear people talk about it, they'll say, "Well, there were some anomalies, some outlying phenomena in places like Los Angeles." But for the most part, "Let's go back to what I wanna talk about."
0:23:12.0 NR: We have no interest in what works when educating. We as a big we, a royal we, have no interest in what works or learning from what works, trying what works, asking people who are successful, "How do you educate the least of these?" No interest, but we will give billions, millions to billions for anyone who is like, "Hey, I've got a brand new idea. Let's use computers to educate kids." Which, one of the things that, of course, what the pandemic showed us is all of these people who were kind of like, "Let's use technology. Let's rethink education and use computers to do it," were staggeringly silent about the failure of virtual education in the face of what was going on. And one would think... I mean I write about beginning of virtual education, the amount of money, how legislatures are all into it, capitalists are... Corporate kind of people who were like, "Technology and business will fix everything." They're constantly like, "Let's rethink schools. Let's rethink how we do public education in the pandemic." I remember Cuomo, who, like many people, he was mandatory listening to. I was living in New York State at the time, so he was my governor at the time. But people all over the country were like, "Cuomo's coming on to tell us what's happening." We were listening.
0:24:40.4 NR: In my university, I was teaching at Cornell. And I first started hearing from some of the higher administration, and then Cuomo, in his bedside chat or whatever they were, his fireside chats, his version of fireside chats, started bringing up, "We're getting together with educational leaders and business to talk about how we can turn this into a benefit to reimagine education, to do a wholesale, to turn our frown into a smile by taking this moment and educate everyone using computers." And the people that they were pulling together to engage in this conversation were not the kids who most needed to be saved by what was going on. They were not the kids that were making learning pods and hiring their own teachers, which was also happening where I live and elsewhere. People were just hiring the teacher. They had their six kids. The teacher came in and taught their six kids, to keep them up to speed. But none of that had to do with how they wanted to revision education, all of us said. So certainly, certainly, if I were doing the book now, that would be another thread that gets pulled through about how... The failure of public education in these very particular ways.
0:26:07.6 NC: And I'm so glad you brought up those NAEP scores. That was gonna be kind of the second data point on there. But one of the other things that was interesting about pandemic education is, when polled, the parents who most wanted not-in-person options for their children were families from those communities that have been historically under-served, communities of color. Because they knew that the impact of the health system was gonna fall disproportionately on them, kind of saw it as a reprieve from the structural racism of the system to want to provide other options.
0:26:40.5 NR: What it revealed, as well, is how little those parents trusted those institutions to keep their children safe. I mean really, when someone would bother to really ask... 'cause it turned on a dime, like the whole kind of discourse, like if you wanna do a whole language, whatever. If I did this kind of thing where I was doing quantitative work, I would get some data points and let's see how many times... 'cause with the discourse that turned from, "This is all terrible for all of us," to, "You people are completely... " You people being the not wealthy, "Are completely unreasonable. You don't care about your kids. You're being led astray by outside influences, and you're just wrong thinking. Get out the way and let us lead you." And like how we went from, "Oh my God, this is so terrible what is happening to your children," to, "You people clearly have no kind of care or concern for your children," by this same kind of group. And it happened so subtly. So I was listening for it 'cause I was like, "Oh, here's what happens when a bunch of White people, who will come from outside these communities, who have never had any relationship with them... "
0:28:03.8 NR: There's lots of folks who have, in history, lots of folks who have had some kind of productive relationship with the least of these, who have started institutions, organizations, joined in with a group's organization. So it's not just the fact of whiteness that's the problem. It's the White people who discover poverty right at the moment when they have a book that they wanna write, or a grant that they're trying to get funded, or a TV show that they're trying to be an expert and get on. That's the dysfunction that ends up harming and widening and disrespecting educational communities, I think, the most. See, now you just got me riled up.
0:28:52.6 NC: That was my goal the whole time, so... What is fascinating... Not that I wanna belabor this point, but the fascinating part is looking at the communities who wanted not-in-person options, and then looking at the places, when the NAEPs bomb dropped and this learning loss thing was supposed to have fallen on all of our heads, the places that should have confirmed those narratives the most, like you said, in Los Angeles, were the places that thrived because they had other creative options that tried to serve their community other than just saying, "Just re-open the schools and everything will be fine." While other people said, "Well, let's work to take inventory of our community resources. How can we best serve the kids in there? How can we work to meet their needs in different ways that also works to keep them safe?" To try to balance those two needs rather than, again, to your point, ignore the threat, push them back into a burning building, and say, "Everything is okay," when it isn't.
0:29:47.9 NR: Yes. And then be like, "Oh my god, you're exacerbating a problem." Because now enrolments are down in all of those school systems, which means you're getting less federal and state money per child, right? Because enrolments in many places... In LA, they've come back, but in many places have not come fully back. Some places they're 70% to 90% of what they were pre-pandemic. I've seen figures that I have not run down the source, and so I can't say that they're real, but that up to a million students have disappeared from public education, who were... And so they've gone to charter schools, which while people call them public schools, they still blah, blah, blah. And they've gone to private school and homeschooling. Homeschooling for Black people in particular, has shot through the roof with this. People are just kind of like, "Why go back? It's a failed system in regard to my child." So what you're finding is the pandemic broke things open, and the ideologies behind it that truly want to defund, want to move those public dollars into a private hand, have really risen to the fore. What you see going on all over the country, led by the Midwest and parts of the South, is a complete dismantle [0:31:14.5] ____ on the heels of.
0:31:17.9 NR: So the panic started with the COVID. That was the initial, "COVID, oh my god, what are we gonna do?" It transitioned into, "We're not doing a good job with the least of these. We really have got to rethink and redo and re... " And then it has gone into, "Public education is such a failure, we now... They're teaching about transgender people and being something called 'woke.'" I don't even know, like what do... I don't even think people use that term any more. The students, it's one of those things where they look at me like a little crazy. Like I say things 'cause I hear them, and they're kind of like, "We said that six months ago. No one's saying that anymore." But now it's a whole, "Don't have woke, and let's have parents have power," which literally started with the closed schools. That language about parental rights, parents needing to organize, parents needing to come to the fore, started as an anecdote to what was happening during COVID, and funded by a whole bunch of big groups that have long wanted to... I know I sound a little like conspiratorial here. However, it is literally the case. Many of these parents for fair education and other groups that you're seeing in the South and the Midwest are funded by a handful of billionaires, who have long been clear that what they would like to have happen is public education go away. And the money just kind of follows students wherever they want to take it. They want a business model for it.
0:33:00.5 NR: You now have... COVID led to enough of a fracture or break, enough of a panic that these forces that were already... Betsy DeVos has been funding vouchers and privatization of public education for decades, like long before she was ever the Secretary of Education for the Trump Administration. But now, in that breach, and what the narrative that we saw, we're seeing that a march across the country for this kind of dismantling that is far more concerning, I think, than any of us would have thought when Biden came in office. I think many of us who work on education and inequality, wanna fight privatization, and who don't think unions are the devil. They're certainly... They got a lot of power, and they got some issues that could be addressed. But I don't think we think they're the devil, certainly not the rank and file members. Those of us, we really thought there was gonna be a federal kind of change, and there has been some. They have done some things about, "We're gonna cut the amount of money in this charter school fund, and we're gonna... " They've done some things. But it has not been wholesale, and between that and what you are...
0:34:27.9 NR: We're in this moment where politicians literally no longer care at all what their constituents want. So one of the things that was protecting public education previously is pretty much legislatures would do what their constituents wanted. And any time you bring privatization vouchers to a vote, it goes down resoundingly. If you give people on whatever, predominantly White communities, predominantly Black communities, rural communities, urban communities, suburban communities, whenever, across the country, when you let people vote on if they would like to privatize education in those particular ways, resounding defeats. Not even close. So now what we're watching, though, on the heels of all of this that has sort of softened up, I don't know, resolve. And then something, I don't know what, seems to have taught legislatures that they just don't really have to care about what their constituents want. Legislature after legislature working with governors who are like-minded are making possible the privatization of education in places like Texas, Ohio...
0:35:40.9 NC: Iowa.
0:35:41.1 NR: Iowa. Yeah, Michigan. Michigan is... They're still... Well, actually, Michigan just went down, but they keep trying. But it's like...
0:35:50.9 NC: That's the unsinkable rubber ducks.
0:35:53.9 NR: Yeah, they keep coming back. But you're watching them make progress. You're watching these forces make progress that they never made before COVID. And I think that there's a connection there that we have not... Or I have not seen anyone actually kind of tease out why is it all of a sudden... And of course, the insurrection. There was that sedition. Sedition and COVID really, really softened up the ground both for politicians, I think, not... In the absence of there being real consequences for many of the sitting members of legislatures and Congress, state legislatures and the federal government really suffering much, so far, as a result, I really think that it's emboldened them. So they're just kind of like, "This is what we wanna do. If you can actually wage war on the United States government and not be held to account, how bad is it gonna be if I'm raiding some education funds and working with the legislature over the objections and the desire of the people who elect us." Does democracy actually matter anymore? And I think that that is the really frightening thing that we may be staring down.
0:37:24.4 NR: Given the work that I've done, I've been clear for a very long time that, at least in relation to voting and education, that democracy for Black people and poor people does not matter. I mean the democracy that the powerful wield is not the same kind of democracy. And I really think we would do well to be like the people's democracy, grassroots democracy versus the democracy that the powerful, the lobbyists, poor people don't have lobbyists. Rich people go get some lobbyists to go get that what they want to get pushed through. Who is doing that work for poor people? What we're seeing is in the attacks on democracy at the level of voting, and the attacks on the federal government at the level of bodies and blood at the capitol mean that people feel emboldened to enact these changes, I believe, in ways that we haven't seen before. And so what we're watching... I mean, you study this, have you ever seen them make these kinds of inroads? I don't...
0:38:34.0 NC: I was just about to add that I'm headed down to the Iowa State Capitol today where I'm at because the state Senate is voting on their voucher bill, and the new vouchers of ESAs and whatnot and all of that language. And that...
0:38:49.9 NR: I think it's gonna pass, no?
0:38:52.4 NC: It's gonna pass in the Senate as far as I know. The House is sort of the stickier issue. They tried to pass almost the same bill last year and couldn't get it through the House. They even extended the legislative session by two weeks. It went two weeks overdue as they tried to rally these votes and eventually it failed because it ultimately, if you look at the polling data around this issue, when they polled Iowa voters last June when the session ended, vouchers failed. And that's why they failed in the House last year. They're trying to speed-run it right now. They've just introduced this bill last week. We were down at the capitol last, I think, Tuesday for the public hearing, and it's already up for a Senate vote today. Went through all the committees last week, Senate vote today, and probably through the House versions and whatnot, reconciliation if it needs to be. But it's House file, Senate bill number one. It is at the top of their agenda to do this, and I can't help but think about that capping rhetoric because that's what it's all couched in, providing these parents choice to get out of these failing schools. And what I've been pushing back against through all of this is that is imported rhetoric. Iowa had the highest high school graduation rate in the country.
0:40:02.0 NC: In 2019, 2020, pandemic messes everything up, but we're still in that top tier of high school graduation rates. If you look at the Iowa state quarter, we have a school house on our quarter. We've never had a provision for vouchers. We've only have, I think, four charter schools in the entire state. So any success that schools have had, the education has had in Iowa, is on the backs of the 94% of students that attend our great public schools. And now what you're hearing is this weird nationalized rhetoric around America's public schools have failed its kids, trying to put this national lens on what, 16,000 public school districts throughout the entire country. They're all the same and they've all failed because of X, Y and Z. But when you start to point out, "Hey, this high school has a 98% graduation rate." This one over here... All of the great Iowa schools somehow that fail, that language of failure...
0:41:02.1 NR: It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.
0:41:03.5 NC: Yeah, yeah. It's not rooted in any kind of Iowa reality, but it's what gets reinforced by national media attention, by social media, etcetera. And the big irony I felt when we went to the public hearing last week was right now the governor's provision is for these ESAs to be deposited for families who have their kids attend non-public schools. Which in Iowa, primarily private education is parochial education, so it's private Christian, Catholic, various denominations of private religious instruction. And they are the ones... The parents who already have their kids enrolled in a private education were the ones that that public hearing saying, "Here's how I value my religious education so much, and here's why I think you should support us." They were not overwhelmingly parents in Des Moines urban schools, I think. Gosh, we haven't even talked about that, the coded language of the failing public schools are predominantly urban schools, and urban schools are predominantly Black or non-White schools. There weren't those parents because they see the value in their communities that those have. They're predominantly the White parents who already send their kids to religious instruction but want state money to do that.
0:42:15.7 NR: So that was one of the eye-opening things that I, when I wrote the book, that I just didn't know about. I'd heard about vouchers. And you know, on their surface, yeah... I was in Princeton, New Jersey at the time paying... God, I think our tax... I don't know what our tax bill was. Our tax bill was more than my first car. And for a variety of reasons, my husband and I ended up having to put our son in private school, which we just couldn't afford. We weren't wealthy people, and we lived in a really, really high tax and it's expensive in Princeton. And so there was a moment where I was like, "I like this voucher idea. I can't afford this, and the schools are failing my kid." They really were, but that has to do with the ways that schools can just treat Black children and Black boys, and that is a whole bunch of other stuff.
0:43:07.8 NC: It's a different podcast episode, but it's related.
0:43:10.3 NR: Yeah, it is. And I was sort of like, "Yes, I want vouchers. That could be good," blah, blah, blah. And so when I started researching the beginnings of the voucher movement that comes out of the '60s, it's all wrapped up in this. We need to... Minnesota schools, again, the Midwest. "We need to have these things for these poor kids in the schools are failing, and if we take the vouchers and... " Civil rights people were front and center, people who came out of Black power, so we're kind of like, "Yes, let's move this money from here to here." And this Polly Williams, they call her the "mother of vouchers" at one point because she... Annette Polly Williams, 'cause she was really... She was in there swinging like, "Okay, we're gonna take these schools and we're gonna educate Black people. We're gonna get this money from here." And it didn't take long. The whole thing was it's going to actually benefit the least of these, the Black and brown and poor kids, move this money around.
0:44:16.1 NR: It didn't take very long before she fell from favor because once she saw that what was happening is White parents, mostly if their kids were in some kind of private school, if it was a religious or otherwise, were very interested in these vouchers, were the ones who came rushing forward initially to make sure that their kids got in there. And something like 70% to 80% of parents who were getting vouchers were these middle class parents whose kids already went to some kind of private school. But the fact of it... And here's the thing about what you're saying in this kind of moment, I think, this political moment that we're in as well, the fact of that, the unassailable fact of that, not... It's no one's personal opinion that you're trying to shove down someone's throat. Obviously, White wealthy or middle class parents are the ones who got the vouchers in the first voucher program, who benefited their kids. Other kids did not. The schools didn't get better. That has been played out over and over and over again across the country, in DC, in any place they've tried to have some kind of voucher program. You see the least of these do not, in fact, benefit.
0:45:35.0 NR: And yet, it doesn't matter. That fact doesn't matter, the fact of that failure doesn't matter. You're still here. So that was in the late 1960s, early '70s, that the first whole district-wide voucher thing is being tried. It failed. We've had multiple failures up to this point. And now today, as you're saying in Iowa, and again, Ohio and some other places. Texas, they just decided to get rid of taxes. Now we're not even going to use property taxes to pay for things, and we're gonna voucherize everything. It doesn't matter that it doesn't work. I think that that is the increasing frustration that I have is we're post-fact. Because when so many of us as reasonable people believe is, let me make a good fit. Let me show you not why I would prefer something else, but how you just... You just don't know. You're probably a lovely person who has everyone's best interest at heart, and you actually believe that this is the way to better bring about these societal changes that you're saying that you want. Let me just explain to you with facts, figures, numbers, that's not what happens. Think of something else, come up with something else to get you... But this is what... It doesn't matter. And now we have these people with the power to push things through who don't care that it doesn't matter, and are banding together. So really, between the chunk of the Midwest where were you're watching, I think they beat it back in Kansas. And now I can't remember, but...
0:47:27.3 NC: That's ironic. [laughter]
0:47:30.4 NR: I think they did because the White rural parents were all like, "What the heck?" Yeah, I think that's how it goes.
0:47:39.9 NC: Same here, yeah. Yeah, even the [0:47:42.8] ____ has... These rural communities don't have private schools to send their kids to. So you're like, "How does this school choice benefit me?"
0:47:49.2 NR: I think they beat it back, but it may have come back again. It's just hard to keep straight. But you're gonna have this whole section of the Midwest it looks like that arguably may be the first to fall in that way. Because what's happening in Florida is a whole other thing. What's happening in Florida, in Texas, I don't know that that's gonna survive any kind of court challenges, and they're gonna be a lot of court challenges. What's happening in Florida, I don't know that the governor there cares about the court challenges. But I'm not... And actually, one thing there that they did recently, I'm not gonna remember exactly what it was. Was it the gerrymandering? Something the court said that was illegal. And the governor was like, "That's okay, we're still gonna do it." [laughter]
0:48:38.3 NC: You had mentioned sedition insurrection is now in the DNA of a portion of that party. So there is the extent to which there's just two competing nations right now. There's one that's in active sedition to the rule of law and to the values of the other nation as a whole.
0:48:57.7 NR: But the problem with this education issue, or the issue that I try to raise as much as possible, is a surprising number of democrats actually are not opposed to some of these privatization efforts. And a surprising number of US presidents have, Democrat and Republican, have made possible what we're seeing. There's something about rich people who, across party lines, who... Now, you're not really having a whole lot of democrats out in front on the voucher issue. You're not looking at democrat... This is why Michigan is a hard sell right now, just the whole straight up and down the line, the democrats now for the first time since whenever. So it's kind of hard to see where they're gonna go, where the privatization forces are gonna go. But if you start to look at what individual Democratic leaders have said, they're not opposed to this. And I think that's one of the frightening things because it's not an easy Republican-Democrat, although democrats are certainly much more organized and much more about pushing it through, and draconian in their lack of care for what it's gonna mean to people who are gonna be harmed by these policies. You don't generally find... You find democrats who say, "We're clueless, we didn't know." But you don't find them going, "I don't care that you're hurt and let's keep it moving."
0:50:27.7 NC: Yeah, there's definitely a certain type of political extremism in one party right now seems to be predominant. Even though, of course, both parties are complicit in this march. In the book, Barack Obama's Race to the Top, you write about Cory Booker, so any Democratic would-be presidential hopeful over the last 20 years has in some form kind of embraced the voucherized charterized thing.
0:50:52.8 NR: There's money behind it. [0:50:55.2] ____ That's basically one of the reason.
0:50:55.3 NC: There's money behind it. My first comments on this were kind of living in that tension. I hear so much from Black parent advocates of choice who may at one point called it, as you had mentioned, the civil rights issue of our time idea. And that's what I just... I live so much in that tension of that history of public education as the maintenance of White supremacy in providing families this way out. And you had mentioned Annette Polly Williams in there too, and eventually her repudiation, her backtracking on the promotion of vouchers as that program because the disproportionate benefits for that. What do you see going forward as the successes or the hopes? How do we find hope in dark times here where, again, you call the Midwest as the first one to go. We got Florida, Texas, Arizona, all around the country. The very notion of the public education and the idea that anything should be public in the first place is under this really vicious assault.
0:51:58.6 NR: Attack, yeah. Then again, I'm not sure I've seen in my lifetime, not like this, like this is... These are different forces together. But even in that darkness, what I'm always... Here's what the students do say. My ministry, my soap box, this isn't actually something that they say. So the thing that I tend to focus on is we get on what's working. Can we at any point ever talk about the figures, the places, the districts that are working? Like I mentioned LA, how... And LA has also been fighting off their school board. But they still have democratically elected school boards, which in majority of color, majority of poor districts, are like a dinosaur. But they are fighting a ferocious fight to protect public education, and they're organizing in ways that I think they don't agree with everything at each other all the time, but they are organizing around particular issues in ways that I really think we have to do a better job at, those of us who value public education. Figuring out how do you take those lessons of what works in your community. One thing is so much of this work has this kind of national kind of thing. So you're like, "Okay, what are people doing?"
0:53:27.9 NR: But there are different flavors to two different places, and one thing is not gonna work everywhere. We need a way to talk about what large goals are while also joining with people in your particular community to fight to keep that one teacher from getting fired, that one principal from going, that one school makes sure that they have adequate infrastructure. It has to be both, and I think in ways that right now we're kind of like, "We're going all in on electing one candidate." And that's not gonna get it done. So I think LA has real lessons in that regard. I'm mostly focused on students of color, poor students, students of color, and in urban areas, if I'm completely clear about what most of my research looks at. And what LeBron James has been doing with his I Promise schools in Akron, but the results that that district or that school is getting where he partnered with the public school system, partnered with unions. All of the staff are unionized teachers. The students who they take are the students who are lowest performing.
0:55:06.6 NR: You get recommended by teachers all over, not 'cause they're cherry-picking, but because the teachers can see you need some basic kind of interventions, go over here. They have the small classes, they have the curriculum that again, done by seasoned teachers who have been teaching this population for some time. Poor kids of color with different kinds of social hurdles that they have to overcome, that's who they teach. They're not surprised by you're coming in and you haven't eaten, or your clothes, you look like you slept in them. They're not freaked out by that because this is who they usually teach. And every year they add some other piece to the curriculum. So most recently, the thing that caught my eye was they have like a 20% homeless population, as many urban school districts have. Homeless not necessarily being completely un-housed, but maybe no stable address or Couchsurfing, staying with different family members. About 20% makes educational consistency very difficult, almost completely unaddressed in national kinds of conversations about this. But he built housing, temporary housing for students and their families, because he said the students could not thrive if they were worried about where they're gonna lay their head.
0:56:41.9 NR: These are all recommended by people on the ground. It's just he has a foundation that can fill in the gaps to make these things possible. They started adult literacy classes because so many of the parents of these students were realizing the ways that they had been under-educated and, more to the point, that they couldn't help their kids with homework or even really understand what's going on, and it made them feel bad. It made them feel inadequate. It was leading to different kinds of problems, like let's have adult literacy classes. The students score... I don't even believe that you just do everything by test scores, but let's at least be consistent because those test scores, given who the population is, are going through the roof. That's something that works. Now, I don't know that you... All of these billionaires that are constantly wanting to spend all this money, let's give NORC $100 million dollars.
0:57:38.2 NR: What if if you gave NORC $100 million dollars to pilot this? Pilot something like this that is a more robust, more relevant form of what we're seeing a lot of expansion around community schools around the country. People are like, "Let's just have community schools." That means so many different things in so many different places. And a lot of places, it really just means, "We're gonna give you some money so you can have an art teacher and a social worker and a nurse." But most everything else is gonna stay the same. And we're no longer gonna be going for integration, you just walk to your school with your social worker. They're not wholesale institutions that are really drawing on the wisdom of parents and teachers about what is most needed. And then being about the business of doing that, 'cause again, it's not one-size-fits-all. What works in Akron in that school district, in that community. There may be some pieces of what the James Foundation has partnered to do that makes sense elsewhere, but I don't know that you can just pick that up and say, "Let's put it down in the middle of Des Moines, and it's gonna work exactly the same." It might, might not. But that idea of just start with what works and why, and get away from only thinking that we're losing, only thinking that we're on our heels, only thinking that there's one way to do this.
0:59:07.2 NR: There's so many examples in history. And again, I know the ones from Black and Brown people best. We know how to educate children. We know how to educate them, we just don't do those things. We do other things. We test them, we put them in uniforms, we tell them to do well or we'll kick you out. We do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with you doing better in life. For people who are wondering what to do or feeling frustrated, I'm happy to join with whoever that is to let's do it. This is what works in education, 'cause it's the first step. People can't get organized if they don't have information, and we need communities to organize because we're at a almost hand-to-hand combat stage of the fight for public education. School board meeting by school board meeting, city council meeting by city council meeting. It's so much more localized, I think, the successful strategy to protect public education has got to be so much more localized than what we're thinking right now where we're like, "Let's just get that state person, that one person in or that one congress person in," it's not gonna do it.
1:00:26.2 NR: But we first need to know what is working, 'cause even that, I spend a lot of time doing this, and I have some things that I can... But I've spent a lot of time doing this. Most people are not. They just wanna get their kids educated. They just wanna get their kid through high school, they don't wanna become a scholar of education in America. So I think we could make information a little more accessible.
1:00:49.8 NC: Well, thank you so much for joining me today.
1:00:52.3 NR: Thank you for having me.
1:00:58.1 NC: Thank you so much for joining us today. Stick around after the episode for a trailer for our biweekly Edufuturism series running this spring and summer of 2023. Visit humanrestorationproject.org/learning for more information.
1:01:22.8 NC: Introducing our Edufuturism learning series, a pay-what-you-want biweekly live web series featuring interactive lessons on emerging content and progressive education aimed at K-12 and higher ed audiences, including teachers and curriculum coaches. All sessions are interactive and feature activities to reflect on your own practice and share through coaching, mentoring and professional development. Our goal is to connect educators, academics, designers, authors and more together to build a better brighter future. For the first half of 2023, we're announcing Design for Change: Learning From Video Games, how we can look at video games for a new perspective on classroom education, using AI without losing ourselves, ethics, and application, practical and philosophical uses for AI within schools, breaking bubbles, navigating social media and online extremism, counteracting the harmful effects of social media while recognizing its benefits, and Fighting Back Against the Future: Solar punk, social justice, and speculative fiction, using fiction to re-imagine what our future could be. Register live and see recordings of all of our interactive sessions at humanrestorationproject.org/learning. See you there.
Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education by Dr. Noliwe Rooks
Dr. Noliwe Rooks @ Brown University