That Way Madness Lies

Honesty and optimism, with a side of spirited indignation

Unofficial CPS Application for Additional Funding Requests

The Board of Education of the Chicago Public Schools has announced that they are in desperate need of new office spaces, furnishings and related services. I am sure it must just have slipped their minds, but there is no way that such major spending on secondary expenses (as opposed to the primary responsibilities of the district) could possibly be allowed without paperwork. We all know that CPS has at least 4 versions of the applications for each and every opportunity presented. The application process is the scared foundation of CPS itself. Without it, the district would descend into providing actual eduction unencumbered by bureaucracy.

Please print your own copy, as we have no budget for paper or ink.

Section One: Eligibility

Part A: Residency. Applicants must be permanent residents of the City of Chicago for any and all purposes. Please submit proof of residency, such as a voter registration card, with this application.

Part B: Income. Within a high-poverty district, the ethical thing to do is to meet the greatest needs first so as to truly create a level playing field with equal opportunities for all children.  Income, when at or below subsistence levels, must be ranked on a micro scale, so as to better understand the nuances between “paycheck to paycheck, let some bills roll over” broke and “Man, beans again?” broke, and “OH. No more beans, huh?” broke.

We rank incomes in $1000 increments up to Tier 100, where the tiers max out. For Example, No income is Tier Zero. $1-$1000 is Tier One. $1001-$2000 is Tier Two. Incomes six figures and higher max out at Tier 100, not because we think you are too rich or because we hate capitalism or success, but rather because we recognize that while their are multi millionaires and billionaires that have insane wealth and make you look broke, you still have local relative wealth. 

Once everyone in each tier has basic needs met (starting with Tier Zero and proceeding chronologically), then we begin on secondary needs, based on the following section.  Please attach proof of income for the last 18 months in triplicate. We plan to lose these, so feel free to make extra copies now and hang onto them until after we lose the first set.

Section Two: Urgency

Please select the answer that best describes your situation for each of the following questions.

1. What is the primary emotion that is motivating your request for approval of additional funds at this time?
a. A passion for making sure that my least fortunate students get the   extra materials they need to succeed.
b. An intense love of the subject matter I teach that compels me to find innovative ways to get my students excited about it too.
c. Fear that the commoners are getting too comfortable speaking their minds in my current workplace.
d. Envy over the spiffy exotic fishtanks and real wood desks that I see at the meetings of other boards when I hang with my friends in the private sector.
e. Cult-like devotion to the Messiah His Majestic Excellency Supreme Overlord Gates, who can rain grant money upon us from the sky. It is not our place to ask why The Lord of Silicon commands us to spend it as he does. It is our place to sign the checks back to him and his friends. Long May He Reign!

2. Sit in your regular seat in your regular workspace and look around. Which of the following best describes what you see?
a. Well, I’ve really done the best I can right now, and the kids did a great job with their reading projects, so those cover up the broken shelves. All of the broken lockers made a good “bulletin board,” so that’s okay, and when I get the gift card from my folks for my birthday, I’ll be able to get a new bookshelf from Target, so not too shabby.
b. Honestly, it used to be more colorful, but all of the data and charts take up what little usable space we had in our room, so we really need to fix the broken stuff before we can think about decorating.
c. Do you mean this year’s workspace or last year’s? The former is crowded and the latter is empty, for starters. You want me to elaborate? I’ll need extra paper if you want me to outline the problems with the path between them, too.
d. You have to understand, it doesn’t matter what I see. It only matters what I don’t see. Do you people understand that Arne Duncan has a life size golden giraffe that he can pretend to ride during phone conferences? When I worked/work/one day work at the Broad Foundation, the signing bonus package will include one of those electronic toilet seats with a pre- programmable temperature, a personal voicemail from Jay Z on my birthday and a Gucci stapler. We have to compete to keep the best and brightest minds in business willing to slum it in public service for a few years, even if they don’t particularly like kids.

3. How safe do you feel in your workspace?
a. Way safer than I feel anywhere else outside of it for miles.
b. Pretty good right now, but one of these days things are just gonna boil over with all of these kids crammed in here like this.
c. You know, we actually have a pool going over whose room is going to have the next major thing break. Last week Room 302’s vents obviously had something die in them over the weekend, but this week the last 3 locker doors fell off of the hinges by the 6th grade. At least we have a break until computer based standardized testing puts us on tech/power/internet rationing again.
d. Well, it used to be better, honestly, but every month, I have to spend one Wednesday morning being reminded that some of them are on to me, and I’m thinking of adding a request for a panic room to my application.

Section Three: Recommendations

Please include 4 letters of recommendation from the following sources:
     One CPS student who is not related to you and supports your position. You will have several hundred thousand from whom to choose. No excuses.
     One CPS parent unrelated to you from your choice of any the afore mentioned Tiers 0-75. This is the vast majority of CPS parents. You’d think at least one of them would do it…
     One professional reference from an expert. In this profession, that obviously means a working teacher with 7 or more years of classroom experience.
     One personal reference. We won’t read this one. Everybody just asks their friend to write it, and everyone knows that, so really, the personal reference is a big honking waste of everyone’s time, but it is standard operating procedure, and that is what matters in a bureaucracy.

Section Four: Personal Essay
Please answer one of the following questions in essay form. Bear in mind that it will be graded by either a computer running a word count-keyword search-based algorithm or a  minimally-trained worker working off of a vague rubric and paid based on number of tests graded not quality of assessment made, so adjust the need for facts, information, accuracy, spelling, creativity, and effort accordingly.

Option 1: Why are failed and discarded industry standards and practices for the high tech industries good policies to import into public education? Make sure to address the reasons that this is best done by unfunded mandates, privatization and annual restructuring/re-restructuring.
Option 2: Compare and contrast the following: grit, moxie, gumption, spunk, guts, fortitude, stamina, tenacity, audacity, audacity of hope, balls, nerve, mettle and pluck. Which of the following best describes you? Be sure to explain why you need our help if you do have grit or the like and be sure to explain why you deserve our help if you don’t.

Section Five: Standardized Test Scores

Please submit proof of competency. Teachers and schools, having already been judged on the basis of data, may skip this step. All non-school personnel must submit proof that all students under their charge meet or exceed all of the district, state and federal standards for passing. If all students in all schools under your supervision/management did not meet or exceed the standard on all measures that matter for schools, students and teachers, you may instead submit proof of your own passing scores on every single assessment taken by every single student under you. For all those whose work is district-wide, this includes all tests given by the district at all levels Pre-K through 12.

You must also answer the following questions:

1. Standardized test scores are most strongly correlated to
a. Grit
b. Effort
c. Knowledge or understanding of material
d. Efforts of the teacher
e. Income tax bracket

2. Business interests are pouring billions into education reform because
a. Wall Street has proven to be such responsible managers of the nation’s trust and money.
b. They genuinely believe in these reforms so much that they want to make sure that the nation’s poorest kids get first crack at them…while they will make their own kids suffer in art classes and science labs and go without a steady diet of testing.
c. Businesses are known for giving honestly and openly with no strings attached.
d. Something about it being for the children… what was the talking point again?
e. They obviously expect a fairly large return on investment given the size of the investment if they are halfway decent businesspeople.

2. The best kind of school board is
a. Appointed and under mayoral control in a city with a century-and-a-quarter-old political machine, unprecedented corruption among public officials and low voter turnout.
b. Made up of mostly career educators and devoted public servants well-versed in child development and education theory.
c. One that works in collaboration with community organizations, teachers, parents and students to make sure all voices are heard and respected.
d. Elected by the citizens of the city because the quality of our education system is an integral part of the quality of life for everyone in the city and because taxpayers deserve a say in who is entrusted with both managing all of that taxpayer money and making decisions that directly impact our well being.
e. B, C and D only.

Please make sure you submit this application directly to a CPS school beginning with letter M or C by 3:00 p.m. on three Fridays ago or slip it under the door of the third stall  in the last aisle of the ladies’ restroom in the lower level food court in what used to be Field’s on State Street by your best guess from the date and time listed above, the one we will say in the robo call, the one you will be told when you call to ask, and the random date to which we might change it later. Make sure to check back, because we usually update the forms. In that case, you will have to reapply. Make sure that all of your required proofs and letters are attached with one standard staple at an upward 45 degree angle to the left edge of the paper. Use standard margins with MLA formatting for even numbered pages, APA formatting for odd numbered pages, and no formatting, spacing or punctuation whatsoever for your essay-it will just make that twirly rainbow cursor show up on the Test-Grader 5000’s screen. Before you choose to submit this application, please indicate that you have read and agree to the following:

I the undersigned, understand that the fiscal responsibility of the district is contingent upon the ability of the district to prioritize the greatest needs. I declare that I have in the past and will continue to try to self-finance my own needs, in accordance with district-wide practices. I understand that many individuals in the district have reaped returns (albeit modest ones) via the following: bake sales, carnivals, car washes,, Kickstarter campaigns, Friends Of organizations, PTA events, candy sales, flower sales, gift wrap sales, silent auctions, benefit dinners, raffles, soliciting donations from local businesses by going door to door, ad books, t-shirt sales, craft fairs, jog-a-thons, read-a-thons, walk-a-thons, dance-a-thons, sing-a-thons, grants from foundations, grants from private donors, grants from businesses, soliciting donations from families, collaborations with local organizations, and alumni booster clubs (has anyone asked Duncan or Vallas to endow actual chairs?).

On a personal note, we are really sympathetic to the plight of the Board. We can certainly empathize with feeling such a budget crunch that you have to choose between a chair and a CHAIR-if you know what we mean! (Or between eating 3 meals and having heat, same dif.) 

If your application is denied, remember, when the budget is small, whether for a school or a district, it is really just an opportunity for greater administrator control over funding. And if a new chair isn’t incentive enough for you to spam your second cousins with sales pitches for $12 tissue paper, we have another motivator. Whichever board member is the first one to earn enough for their office collection gets a slice of room temperature pizza and a juice box.

Who needs fully funded schools from above when so many career-readiness opportunities are present in the administrative process? Good luck to all of the applicants. 

Reform to English Pocket Translator: Opt-Out Edition

Every so often, I realize that there is massive confusion caused by the fact that the United States is home to a dangerous and insidious foreign language that competes in the minds of Americans for supremacy over English.

That’s right, folks, I’m talking about the language spoken by the Education “reform” crowd and their corporate overlords: Reformese, or Reformy.

(If you were thinking about Spanish, you really should go wash out your brain. You’ve got some moldy ideas up in there doing you no good at all.)

I’ve really had no choice but to dust out the old Reform to English Dictionary.

Long story short: a year or so ago, CPS was on a mission to let everyone know how awful and obsolete and useless the ISAT was. They had to get everyone on board to dump it because the Common Core State Standards (defined previously here) were coming and the ISATs were not aligned with them. So we had to bring in PARCC and ditch the ISAT. CPS also said NWEA was far superior and would do a better job than ISAT. There are more assessments and they come in bunches. I’m just going to toss some letters up here and pretty much on any given day you can pick a few and assume that those letters will make your kid nauseous. MPDBSALEIWSPCTYCTRAHAE.

Basically, we have trapped our kids in an overlapping year between the “completely obsolete and outdated and sub-standard, low-bar ISATS that cannot even answer the question ‘is our children learning?’” and the “Jesus himself devoured data and from it produced a whole generation of new tests and linked curriculum because he will only return to bring salvation to humankind if Pearson can get that damn profit margin up in the third fricking quarter!”

In other words, the kids are being strangled by a legal noose created by politicians with overlapping contracts and policies that contradict each other codified into law.

Parents all over Chicago, even those who have never opted out before, took a stand in favor of increased learning time and against bureaucratic buck-passing to minor children. Teachers at a couple of schools took taken a stand against being forced to violate their professional ethics. 

I stand with these teachers and families (who are opting out by the hundreds), and I offer them what little gift I can: A handy pocket guide for parents and teachers trying to wade through the seemingly contradictory and paradoxical press releases and notes in backpacks.

The idea that individuals simply should make the best of a bad situation (Lemons? Lemonade!) ignores the fact that passivity in the face of bad acts committed by others is precisely what lets small groups of bad people cause globalized harm in the first place. 

It also ignores the fact that many kids don’t know how to make lemonade because the recipe has never been on a test.

It also ignores the fact that we ration the sugar, cut funding for the water, kids have to provide their own pitcher and oversized spoons are banned as weapons under Zero Tolerance policies that we know do more harm than good, but we love because even people without measurable IQs can write them.

There is also something being completely ignored in this debate over the ISATs, validity, ethics and policy aside: the fact that the public (parents, teachers and administrators included) have internalized the Reformy vocabulary and are now using Reformy words in their own explanations of inaction.

Now we can hardly blame anyone for this: it has been a calculated effort, and testing jargon is the Super Bowl Halftime commercial of the Reformy movement to control the public discourse and scam people into voting against the interests of their own children, against their own economic well-being and against both common sense and actual experts.

The corporate executives at the top of the education policy pyramid pay good money for the expertise of people who basically create Stockholm Syndrome for a living. They are the best of the best, political and “educational reform” consultants are. And they are responsible for a lot of phrases I have been hearing these last few weeks as testing season (Hunting Season for the Human Spirit, really) has kicked into high gear.

Today, I would like to give everyone this handy dandy pocket translator just so that we all know what it is we are actually saying when we use Reformy eduspeak. It is very different than English, and since we all want to set a good example and only say things we actually mean, I hope everyone can do their best to clear up these common misconceptions so that at least when people take a side, they realize what it is for which their side is ACTUALLY fighting.

I also hope that those without a side can see that they have in fact chosen the side of being total tools that will make our whole generation look like idiots in future history books, so thanks for your apathy. Way to be a real nobody with the delusional shamelessness to brag about it.

For those quick to accept any of the following as reasonable reasons to force kids to take a pointless, nerve-inducing and scientifically questionable test, I hope the pocket translator can help us all make sense of the obfuscation and shine a light on the perversion of the language by people hellbent on destruction and the consolidation of personal economic power.

“We need everyone to take the test because we need to meet AYP in order to get federal funding we desperately need.”

Most critiques of this justification (An aside: justification is reformy for “excuse.” There are “no excuses” in Reformy, so they make justifications instead.) point out that meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress, previously defined here) means that all children in the school must meet or exceed whatever the selected percentile cut off point that is considered “passing” by this year, 2014. Therefore, since even many Level 1 selective enrollment schools and top tier suburban showpieces can’t even make AYP, activists argue that we won’t make AYP, test or not.

They are right. Think about it: it is not mathematically possible for every child in every CPS school to be above the 20th or 22nd or 24th percentile (heck, a full 1% of Illinois children will be residing below even the low-bar 2nd percentile-by the very definition of the term). If you don’t know, you wouldn’t pass 5th grade math. Percentiles and percentages (and means, medians and modes) are different, and this justification ignores that fact. AYP is a pipe dream designed to be impossible for ulterior motives.

Even in a school that does have kids who score consistently at the top of the heap, with the way the law is written and interpreted by bureaucrats, one kid-ONE-is enough to keep a school from meeting AYP in 2014. One kid with the flu who should have been kept home. One kid whose parents are divorcing. One kid whose brother got shot last night. One kid whose sister is in the hospital. One kid with a disability having an especially symptomatic day. One clown who bubbles in the outline of his genitals onto a scantron sheet. One kid who missed number 2 and is one-off on every answer. One kid daydreaming. One kid going through puberty with a view of cute girl twirling her hair two seats over.  One classroom with peeling paint and a draft. One school on lockdown (again) due to shootings in the street outside or fights in the hallway. One strep outbreak. One anxiety attack. One classroom having an off day. One group of students dealing with a conflict.


Which brings us to what the phrase really means in Reformy.

If you argue about the need to make AYP, you are in fact arguing that “Children should be responsible for securing adequate funding for their school districts via their performance on a given day on a litmus test of arguable scientific validity, and the adults who are paid six figures to manage the district should not be responsible for securing adequate funding for the district.”


“I don’t want to rock the boat or draw attention to our family/school/ward because it could get worse!”

This one has a few translations, actually.

The first one is : “I am conveniently ignoring the fact that things will get worse, test or no test, unless people stand up for themselves.”

It also can be translated as: “I got mine, bitches. Y’all are on your own.”

Another valid translation is: “Well, patronage is working for me, so…”

Or: “I have only thought about the subject in terms of immediate gratification and have no understanding of long term planning or the connections between bad policy and future social problems.”

Another is: “I mean, they could start treating white kids as if they were poor black people, and we can’t have that!”

But really, the most direct translation is: “I’m scared, so I’m letting the kids handle this one.”

I’m sensing a theme.

Here’s another justification:

“We live in a test-taking world, so this will be good practice for them.”

This one also has several potential translations. First, there is: “I have never asked my child about what they did in school today and therefore don’t realize that they get plenty of opportunities to practice those skills.”

And: “I have never looked at the mountains of test prep worksheets and computer homework assigned each week.”

Or: “I actually am trying to convince myself that someday my kid will be the best darn professional reading comprehension circle filler in the whole darn industry!”

There is also: “Wait, my kid has another test this week?”

And: “It is more important to know my child’s score on information that I will never have the chance to examine than for my child to know actual information that applies to their life and opportunities they will encounter.”

But really, this one can be translated as: “I wasn’t paying attention to your question. Can I barf some random words at you instead? It will help me sleep better tonight.”

Here is an easy one to translate:

“We have to take our time and weigh the pros and cons.”

This means: “Sorry I’m late. Where is the coffee? And what did I miss?”

And here are two ways of saying the same thing:

“It is the law!”

“If I speak up, it might cause problems for my family or school.”

Translation: “I just got though all of Black History Month and Women’s History Month by doing nothing but paying lip service to the courageous people I claim are my role models, and plan to do nothing but continue to pay lip service to my values because OMG a new Bachelor! Set the DVR!”

Of course, there is one line that is easy to translate but is still floating around in a dangerously ubiquitous misuse:

“These tests are an important measure of our students, teachers and schools.”

This phrase is the equivalent of explaining that we should force everyone to drink Pepsi instead of water because “it’s the choice of a new generation.” Just because someone said something right before you gave them your money doesn’t make it true. The free market doesn’t rate quality, it rates popularity. I’m no socialist, but come on, we don’t have to make capitalism look worse by pretending that the people in the market for educational goods and services are doing anything other than selling and buying educational consumer products. They aren’t on a mission of charity or out to create public service announcements. They are on a mission of increasing the bottom line.

We are under no obligation to agree that the test is of value because the advertising pitch says so. We actually get to determine the value of products independently of their data points on the tickers, especially when CPS spent last year trying to tell us that they needed to replace the ISAT because it wasn’t doing the job it was advertised to do.

I half expect CPS to purchase a fleet of Edsels.

Anyone using this line is selling you something, lying in an attempt to pass the buck or is dangerously uninformed about the matter at hand.

I’ll conclude with a fair translation of the phrase in bold above:

“Whatever you do, do not trust me with the well being of children. I’ll make them bear the burdens that used to belong to adults in our society.”

While I imagine that there may well exist a reason (not excuse or justification) to continue to sit for meaningless tests, I haven’t heard a real one yet. Repeating these lines without understanding their implications will hurt our kids in the long run.

No human being can ethically make excuses, or even justifications, out of even the most well-polished versions of the turds listed here.

Real Americans Don’t Ban Books They Haven’t Read

I have wasted way too much time getting dragged into conversations with insistent idiots lately.

The least informed members of the right wing are shouting the loudest in the movement against the Common Core State Standards. The nuances of that debate are fodder for a future post, but suffice it to say that they are a top-down set of standards that are more about selling products that teachers don’t need to schools that can’t afford anything else than they are about improving schools. 

CCSS was not created by educators, though the businesspeople who wrote them fashioned a cute little creation myth insinuating that it was teacher-driven.  I digress.

Many self-declared Tea Party members and a variety of factions of Libertarians are dead-set against CCSS.  Many liberals and progressives, as well as parents and teachers of all backgrounds are also against the CCSS, or at least have concerns. Each of these groups has their own reasons for disliking CCSS, and many of those reasons are quite contradictory.

I personally am not a fan, but there are some aspects that are less objectionable than others. One cool thing is that in some schools, teachers are creating some really dynamic lesson plans (though it is folly to think that this is a new phenomenon). 

Another is that the standards themselves have some subjects and some grade levels that seem to please some teachers and students by expanding the curriculum. 

Another bonus is that there is a push towards greater diversity of authors and perspectives.

Now, in some places, we have been introducing black and brown authors to students for a long time.  In some places we aren’t scared to talk about women’s studies or a variety of religions and cultures.  We even admit that gay people exist.

In other places, the idea that the federal government is forcing scary gay black Muslims (real or imagined) into their children’s schoolbooks is enough to make folks start stockpiling bottled water.

These same folks love that most famous phallic symbol (the gun), but they are terrified of sex.


They refer to sex ed as “advertising for Planned Parenthood.” (Because heaven knows that so long as women can’t identify their own genitalia with anatomical terms, they don’t need pap smears or contraception. Magic!)

They also lump all explanations or descriptions of anything sexual into the category “pornography.”  Because Juggs and James Joyce’s Ulysses are totally the same, dontcha know?

The current controversy is over a novel that is on a list of *potential* books for high school students to read.  It is called Dreaming in Cuban, a National Book award finalist by Cristina Garcia. It is a story of family, culture, immigration, mental health and the way that politics effects everyday life, according to folks who have read it.. 

Full disclosure.  I haven’t read it yet.

That is why I am not saying, “yes, definitely, let’s require this book for everyone in America of all ages.”

I’m not recommending it and I am not not recommending it. Because I haven’t read it yet.

The thing is, there are lots of folks who have not yet read this book.

Some of them have seen one page.

It has a sex scene.

But rather than reserving their judgement on it until they have read it or instead of saying, um, “my family chooses not to have that book in our house,” they want to use it as a wedge regarding Common Core.

In so doing, they are getting other folks who have not read the book and likely have never even heard of it before to rise up against it (on the basis of one page out of context).  Getting uninformed people who are suspicious of brown people who speak Spanish to begin with riled up about sex (those hot-blooded Latinos, right?) plays into stereotypes. 

When stereotypes get inflamed, some people get hellbent on pushing their representatives to create policies based on “values” and “morals.”  (Meaning, always, their own, regardless of the First Amendment or the diversity of our country.)

Mind you, when pressed, none of these folks can suggest appropriate substitutions.  They’ll tell you a laundry list of books that aren’t okay (one other much-maligned book is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison), but after asking in many groups and forums these last few days, I have yet to receive anything more than a vague “bring back the Classics!”

Since they can’t name one “classic” title, I doubt they have read any of them either.  If they had, they would know that the Classics are all about the sex and violence.

When I pointed that out, they insisted that because of the old-timey language, kids don’t know that they are about sex and violence.

De Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt.

The excuse is always, “I have strong feelings.  This goes against the values and morals we teach our children, and if you don’t feel like we do, you are a bad parent and you are what is wrong with America (if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that… ), and we need laws to protect all of us from the stuff my kids aren’t allowed to see.”

If you have ever spent a minute in an anti-Common Core thread in any social media, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

I also have strong opinions about those things. I just don’t want to dictate all of my values to others to the point that I blur lines and stifle academic discussion.

Look.  I am against CC.  I believe that professional teachers should create the curriculum on a more localized level. I am against standardized testing. I am in favor of parental involvement in school planning.

I believe that teaching children moral development is imperative and that it begins at home.

I believe morals can be enforced in school. 

The values I want schools to reinforce are the ones that help us get along, not the ones that keep us divided.

School can and should teach us to respect each other for who we are.  It can and should teach us to work together, to compromise, to be empathetic and to participate in our communities.

It isn’t explicit instruction, it is just the nature of creating a functioning classroom environment.  It is stuff that comes naturally to most kids-they just need help with conflict resolution and such sometimes.

It isn’t a subject for grading-it is just the perks of being engaged in society, and school is the first community that most children experience with their peers and without their parents. I believe that in a healthy school environment with respect all around, this all can happen organically. I’ve seen it.

I also believe in giving my children credit. They have learned their values at home, so when they read challenging material on deep subjects, they read it critically. They look for flaws and ask questions. Their teachers are trained and continue to study new ways to open critical discussions.

Just because children read something, it doesn’t mean that they go out and do it.

What behaviors we change based upon what we read depends more on the level of critical thought we put into what we read and the quality of dialogue with others which it inspires than it has to do with the material itself.

My kids didn’t take up farming after Charlotte’s Web, and I read Moby Dick twice, but whaling isn’t for me.  I’ve read more than my fair share of comic books, but I haven’t turned into a mutant with super powers.  I’ve read Cinderella and I have no desire to marry a prince. I’ve read Night and have yet to commit genocide.

The lessons that I have internalized from reading such complex material are not superficial mimicry.

They are deeper and more nuanced lessons about our collective history, various perspectives on various types of conflict and the nature of the human condition.

Our kids are learning how to navigate a complicated world. They hear about this stuff in the media and the news and from peers. If we read about hard things: relationships, family situations, death, war, genocide, etc., then we can create a context in which the RIGHT messages can come to the forefront. As in “drinking might seem cool, but here is how that story plays out for real.”

Or “I used to be nervous to talk to different people, but then I read a book that showed me girls from Southeast Asia face the same types of conflicts and problems that my friends and I do, so we actually have stuff in common.”

(Funny aside and spoiler alert: the premarital sex in Dreaming in Cuban doesn’t work out so well for the main character.  I didn’t even have to read it.  I just googled the fucking plot. Context is everything.  Oh, and those who are all worked up about the consensual nookie seem to have no issues with the political oppression or rape in the book. Oh wait.  That’s right. They didn’t read it. I almost forgot because it is so nonsensical.)

Teenagers know about and are having sex.  Lots of it.  Thankfully, states with a broad sex ed curriculum are seeing a drop in teenage and unplanned pregnancies (due to increased understanding of how things work and how to use birth control). Unfortunately, those in abstinence-only states are learning that putting your fingers in your kids ears doesn’t protect them from anything but knowledge.

They already all read about, watch media about and talk about sex.  We were all teenagers once.  If you weren’t thinking about sex all of the time, then my guess is that your hormone levels were below average or you were a late bloomer. 

Most young people are motivated primarily by sex hormones.

That is a good thing, because it is how the species keeps from going extinct. 

If we can just keep kids both busy and informed, we can help them to retain the upper hand most of the time until their lives catch up with their bodies.

I have no delusions.  I feel that my kids are perfect, but I know they aren’t.  They are going to do stuff I wish they wouldn’t.  How do I know this?  Because I was a kid once, and I look like shit in rose-colored glasses.

Everyone looks like shit in rose-colored glasses.

I have done my best with true information, ethics and love.  Our best is all we can do.

But sometimes there are other influences, both good and bad. Learning what to do when they encounter a different situation, perspective or idea than those of our family’s values is a necessary part of growing up.

When it comes down to it, I trust my children. In a few years after being in classes like this, they will be off on their own, in college and then starting careers and families.

They will have to be prepared to navigate all of these hard issues in the real world.

I want them to have a frame of reference. That is what reading challenging work and discussing it critically is about.

I would encourage folks to keep the spectrum of options for reading material wide. Individuals and families should be able to opt out and do a separate project if such a book would violate personal or religious values/beliefs. If you choose to opt out of public schools entirely (though I firmly believe that public schools with diverse populations are the key to strengthening democracies),  I think it is your right to do so.

I just don’t think it is a problem of Common Core that we are trying to broaden the spectrum of reading *options.* None is required. This should be discussed on the family level and the local school level.

I also think that we have to remember, in a country as diverse as ours, there are different values and beliefs. When we try to turn our personal beliefs into policy for everyone, that isn’t in the American spirit. Keep the options open so that one school can choose what is best for them and another can choose a different book to meet the needs and desires of its community.

We need to quit the fear-mongering.  If all of the people who act terrified of sex in the media were really as chaste as they claim to be, there would be a lot less religious fundamentalists in the world, and a lot less quickie marriages with loose-fitting wedding dresses.

We also need to quit letting irrational and uninformed people to hijack every important education conversation.

A variety of opinions is good, so long as they have their facts straight.  And not every opinion-holder has the necessary background, skills or knowledge to dictate policy that others will have to follow.

If you haven’t read a book, you do not have the necessary facts to make any decisions about that book for anyone other than yourself.

Curriculum should be created by educators.  Reading lists should be made by English Language Arts teachers and librarians. Social studies curriculum should be created by those with degrees in teaching it (along with social scientists and historians who are on the cutting edge of new research and analysis).  The same goes for all subjects: we need to have some faith in the experts, just like we do in other fields like law, medicine and architecture.

This whole idea that we can malign anyone with training and facts with the slur “elitist” is an exercise in absurdity.  Expertise is earned by commitment, training or experience. It is not created out of thin air based on whether you use CAPS LOCK to make REALLY SERIOUS POINTS!

Top-down dictation of curriculum by businesspeople is bad (often because they don’t even know the material, don’t understand the nuances, haven’t studied education or child development and they haven’t read the books).

When the curriculum dictation is bottom-up, it is just as bad if those same qualifiers exist.

Why is this all so important? 

Well, those with money to make through CCSS have painted everyone who is opposed with a broad brush. To reformy-types, we are all just wackos.

This banning of books and fear of the unfamiliar could be the undoing of the whole movement.

On the other hand, if we win and get our states to reject Common Core, and our districts to reject non-stop testing, those who would ban books and remove evolutionary biology, climatology, non-Western studies and diverse perspectives from schools will be poised as the loudest voices ready to fill the curriculum void.

We need to make sure that people who actually read and understand books are responsible for picking books for kids to read.


Because the whole point of sending our kids to school is so that they learn new, factual stuff so that they are smarter than us someday.  If we want our kids to be dumbed down, we can keep them home and keep them stifled by the limits of our own experience. (Even many who school at home know that they have to get their kids out and involved in the world around them in order to learn.)

But if we want our children to thrive and go beyond what we have been able to accomplish, then we have to set aside our irrational fears of the unknown and trust our children.

If we have raised them right, then challenging books will make them stronger.

If our values are worth anything, then they will be strong enough to stand up to those bits of media that conflict with them.

And if one page of one book is enough to make your child reject all of your morals and values, then maybe there is something deeper and more offensive in your values that your child is rejecting.

Like the barely veiled racism, homophobia, misogyny, denial of scientific truth and xenophobia that underlies all of your policy suggestions.

If you want to keep your kid ignorant, that, sadly, is your right.  But you have no right to try to make my kid stupid.

Banning books makes people stupid.

There is no word in English for the degree of stupid that is required to ban a book you haven’t even read.

Now, does anyone have a copy of Dreaming in Cuban that I can borrow? Every time people try to ban something, my reading list get a little longer.  Lately, that is happening a lot.

Caution: Explicit Content

No really. Caution. explicit content.  Right now, coming your way. This is your final warning: if you have delicate constitutions and significant sensitivities, stop reading… now.



So the real title of this piece is

All We Need Is for Enough of Us to say Fuck You.

Because really, that is all we need.  Apparently we just need to communicate in words that Rahm understands.

We simply need enough people to stand up and say, out loud, often, and together is “Fuck you, Rahm. Don’t fuck with me. You don’t know who you’re messing with.”

That is really what it comes down to, isn’t it?  Creating change is something that we absolutely have the power to do any time we decide it is important to us.

We elect the guys.  We are the ones who hire them and do their performance reviews.

It only takes a handful of simple steps to accomplish change.

Number One: So get yourself registered to vote.  It is not that hard to do.  This is how you do it in the City of Chicago.

Number Two: Read at least a bit of local news about politics and city functions. Use a variety of sources. (Watch TV, read a paper or two and find some local online news sites (free).  Hint: You can “like” a news outlet on Facebook or follow them on twitter to get instant FREE! access to stories on your feed.  You can do this while you wait for the bus, sit in your dentist’s waiting room or pretend to use the toilet just so you can have 3 minutes of quiet alone time with three kids in the house. Not that I would know anything about that.

Number Three: Actually show up to vote.  Really, I cannot stress enough the significance of the difference registering to vote and actually voting. You’d be amazed how many people think that if they skip this step, nobody will notice.  Um, maybe if you were the only one, sure.  But when y’all stay home en masse, we end up with Rahm Fucking Emanuel as mayor. So grow up and show up.

And no grumbling about the lack of quality candidates or that it doesn’t make a difference because the candidates are all the same. That is a load of Grade A Bullshit designed for the purpose of justifying laziness and helping you sleep at night. Democracy is not a spectator sport. If you don’t work for it, it will disappear completely.  Don’t like the candidates? Run for fucking office if you are so fucking brilliant. Seek out third parties to support. Volunteer and get into someone’s ear. Take some fucking initiative.

And no, all parties and all candidates are not the same. If you think that, you need to go back to Number 2 and find some better sources. Like a fucking history textbook.

Number Four:  And because polling data indicates that by far the vast majority (indeed, nearly the entirety) of Chicagoans share a negative opinion of Rahmbo’s job performance, I have found myself wondering where all of the old school Chicago moms are. You know, the moms unafraid to humiliate people in public because someone messed with our kids.  Chicago moms who don’t pull punches, don’t tolerate bullshit and don’t suffer fools lightly. I know that we are still here, but we have been gentrified into an unnatural state of quiet.

We can remedy that fairly easily.

I humbly suggest that the most important step in this process is to state the following loudly and frequently:

Fuck you, Rahm.  Don’t fuck with me. You don’t know who you’re messing with.  This city is tougher than you.  Tomorrow, we are putting up the help wanted sign.

Help Wanted: Major city seeks Mayoral Candidate. Must actually want children to thrive in city.  Must treat all neighborhoods equally, regardless of the skin color or socio-economic status of the inhabitants. Non-ballet dancer preferred.  Nothing against ballet dancers in any way.  It’s just a touchy subject, like when your creepy ex is really into something (like Iron Maiden or drag racing or being a fucking ballet dancer), and it kinda reminds you of them and it ruins it for you for a little while?  Because someone who loves the arts, that would be great? But we’d prefer someone willing to fund fine arts for the schools than someone who was a ballet dancer right now?  You know, until we heal?  Ahem. Must understand that “tough” doesn’t mean being a prick All. The. Time.  You know what?  This really isn’t rocket science.  Or brain surgery. Or even rocket surgery.  All we want is a candidate that will listen to what we average Chicagoans need and think and then work with us to achieve our goals together.  Politics 101: Make the people who elected you happy.

Which brings us to

Number Five: Politics 101 (voter edition): Make sure the people we elected know what can happen when they don’t listen to us and help us thrive and keep us safe. We can shame them into submission and alienation, and we can kick them to the curb in the next election.

The only catch is that our power lies in our numbers, and far too many of us are perfectly willing to go with the flow for the sake of convenience.
What kills me about that is that nobody to whom I have ever spoken is neutral on Rahm or the City Council. Everyone mutters their real feelings and everyone bleeps their real word choices.

Come on, especially you Chicago moms and dads.  Rahm underestimates us, doesn’t he? So why are we tiptoeing around pretending to be polite?  We are Midwesterners, and passive aggression doesn’t suit us.

Speak plainly and honestly and from the heart.

Just tell him: Rahm, don’t fuck with my kids. DO NOT fuck with my kids. I will go Molly Weasley on your ass. Keep your motherfucking, arrogant, greedy mits off of my kids.

Oh, and Rahm? The last Purple Line back to the North Shore leaves Clark and Lake at 7:14 p.m. on weekdays.  And I guarantee you that there is at least one pregnant CPS mom out there who will be willing to give up her hard-earned seat for you, so long as you promise that it is a one way trip.

And Now for Something Completely Different

This week, I am on staycation. Yesterday my baby turned three.  Three.

My oldest is ten and at the rate he is growing, he will be towering over me before the end of the school year, if not sooner. 

Even the middle kid is growing up.  There is a big difference between a little kindergartener and a grown-up first grader, and suddenly he is looking his age (which is six-and-eleven-twelfths, for anyone at home keeping score).

My kids are all as intense as I am.

It makes for a very exhausting life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  When kids are as intense as mine, it just means that their brains are working, and are turned up to eleven at all times, like they are the Spinal Tap of cleverness and curiosity.

All kids deserve a better world.  My kids were born with the audacity to demand one.

I love that about them.

I hear a lot that I am “brave” for writing about the things that I do.  I’m not brave. There are folks who are willing to get arrested for the causes about which I merely write words. 

It is important to have perspective.

That said, I certainly have the courage of my convictions in a way that I did not a decade ago.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’ve followed politics since I was a little kid. I debated and took part in Student Congress in high school.  Social studies was my favorite subject from about age 8 onward. I have worked for social justice my whole adult life.

But writing stuff like I write on this blog with my name on it?  That is fairly new.

Kids change people.

I know, duh, right?

It isn’t just the stuff that people can see like drinking less beer on weeknights and buying a minivan with a high safety rating (though certainly both of those apply to our family, though I personally still don’t drive and prefer to walk, even with three kids in tow).

Sometime around 8 years ago I realized that when my oldest complained of tummy troubles, my first reaction was to hold out my hands to catch barf.

I’m pretty sure that only moms do that, and we do it because time is precious and no mom has time to take care of a kid with the flu AND scrub the carpets.

I used to really get grossed out by the sounds of nail clippers and noses being blown. Now I can pick someone else’s nose with my non-dominant hand while clipping someone else’s nails with my right, while also remembering all of the verses to Baby Beluga and creating a seamless transition to the SpongeBob SquarePants theme, pausing only to help with a homework question.

After a careful handwashing, I go next-level by helping two kids with homework, painting with the little one, working on research and cooking dinner at the same time.

I manage these miracles by acting like a raving lunatic and drinking a vat of coffee each day.

The week before our first child was born, my parents took me and my husband out to dinner and gave us a solid piece of advice: get your sleep now, because you will never sleep the same way again.

It seems obvious, of course.  New parents don’t get much sleep.

But that tiredness never really goes away, does it?  Even when they start sleeping through the night, there are those nights when they don’t. 

There are those nights where they can only find peace in your arms, and only if your whole body is contorted into a yoga-like position I call the Insomniac Pretzel.

There are nights when your own fears overcome you.  Is he breathing? What was that nightmare about? Am I failing him as a mother? Is he eating enough? How can we ever pay for college? Can we pay the bills? Why does he have to like sharks?

I used to be terrified of sharks and everything underwater.  Terrified.

I had avoided the world-class Shedd Aquarium in Chicago since I was a young child.  It scared the crap out of me.  But Xavier begged me to take him to come “face to face with a 40-foot wall of water and the Midwest’s largest collection of sharks!”

So I did it.

And then we bought a membership to the aquarium and learned everything we could about sharks.

Then Conor came into the world yelling demands. There are some things that mothers never forget. I remember very little of labor and delivery (it is better that way), but I do remember the first sound each kid made, and Conor was hands down the loudest.

He still is.  And he likes to jump off of things.  It is only a matter of time before he gets me to try some pretty terrifying amusement park rides. 

And I get motion sickness and think my stepladder is dangerously high. 

All Conor will have to do is ask, and I’ll get over it, just like I emptied a section of my brain so that I could memorize facts about prehistoric creatures that most folks don’t even know once existed.

It is certainly fun when your kids can share your interests (Xavier loves history and mythology, Conor loves National Geographic, long walks and cooking, and they both love Mythbusters, writing, art, Star Wars and the White Sox).

It is even cooler when they inspire you to learn about their interests.  I know more about dinosaurs, monkeys, octopuses, hockey, trains, astronomy, physics, chemistry and plenty of other things than 20-year-old me could ever have imagined.

And then Charlotte came along and turned everything upside-down.

(You can read her story here.)

We almost lost her. 

Conor was my loudest baby.  Charlotte was my most quiet.

She was intubated and medicated.

And in that moment of looking down at my baby girl, her heart only functioning by the “miracle” that is modern medicine, that I found my voice.

I had to.  She didn’t have one of her own.

Charlotte has come so far.

She is an aptly-named lover of arachnids.

If it had been up to her, Saturday’s birthday bash would have been tarantula themed.  Our guests can all thank me for suggesting a Charlotte’s Web theme as a compromise.  It is one of her favorite movies, so it was an easy sell.

Getting a house that is torn up each day by three energetic kids ready for a party was not such an easy task.  My husband and I spent a week going room to room turning this kid warehouse back into a home.

We all have our parenting epic fails. I faced one of mine Friday night when it was time to get the kiddie pool ready.

The last few weeks were too cool for swimming, so we had emptied the pool (but not all of the way).  My husband handled pruning and weed pulling while I got to explore the science experiment brewing in the brown water. 

I went to bail it out.  Then I saw why the water was brown: baby mosquitoes. In a kiddie pool ten feet across.  That I was supposed to maintain.

Normally, you can’t see baby mosquitoes from a distance.  Think of the mass required to see mosquitoes from 10 feet away. 

I obviously had to kill them, so I poured in a few cups of bleach and started to stir the pot like some bootleg witch that got cut from Macbeth for being too creepy.

Many would have felt totally disgusted.  I would have before Charlotte, too. 

But I was fascinated.  As I stirred and strained, I couldn’t help but see the bugs settle in patches as they died.

I caught a swarm in the moments before it took to the sky.  A day earlier it would have been too small to see. A day later it would have been off to feast on my most delicious neighbors.

Few humans ever have the chance to see a swarm condensed down to a handful with no spaces in between the creatures.  This was one pool worth of one species.  Imagine the volume of insects and arachnids on this planet!

Before Charlotte, I would have seen it as a project so daunting, I might have just tossed the pool.

Because of Charlotte, I had a moment of wonder, and then a perfectly clean and shiny pool.

So many people respond to Charlotte’s story by saying that her current good health is a miracle.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Her good health is a result of hard work, access to world-class medical care and scientific inquiry.

It isn’t the big dramatic moments that are the miracles.

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web has two themes.  The first is the obvious one about friendship. The other is about the nature of the world around us.  In the book, Fern’s mother, Mrs. Arable, is worried about her daughter who claims to converse with animals. She consults Dr. Dorian and asks,

          “Do you understand how there could be any writing in                               a spider’s web?”      
          “Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that                     matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web                   in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said                       they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is             a miracle.”
        “What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I                 don’t see why you say a web is a miracle-it’s just a web.”
        “Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.

We focus on all of the wrong things.  Open heart surgery is not a miracle.

Life itself is the miracle. The world is the miracle.

Everything in it is a miracle. The laws of physics, the diversity of the dinosaurs, the ampullae of lorenzini that guide the hammerhead to meals beneath the ocean floor, the eight eyes of the tiny common jumping spider that allow it to stalk prey as successfully as the largest of land predators, the ability of humans to create stories out of nothing but the chemistry and physiology of our minds…how can anyone ever sit around and wait for a miracle to happen?

Open your eyes, and millions of miracles appear before you.

Yet some days, we are bogged down by the never-ending list of problems, both natural and human-made, that surround us and dictate the conditions of our lives. 

Far too many of us are waiting for a hero to save us.  Far too many are putting all of our eggs in a basket tied to a prayer for a miracle.

Those kind of miracles don’t just happen.

My daughter’s life was saved because generations of people dedicated their lives to the hard work of medicine and scientific research into the workings of the human heart.  Her life was saved by a team of talented surgeons and health care specialists. And then we had to work to care for her and she had to to all of her rehab and therapy work herself.

Miracles don’t just happen.  People have to make them happen.

So all of those problems that confront me each day? 

I have to put in the hard work.  I have to build my team of specialists.  I have to do my part to preserve the miracle.
This isn’t my planet.  I am just taking care of it until the time comes for me to turn it over to my children.  It is my job to raise them to understand what the job entails.  And it is my job to tend the garden that is this world until I can no longer fall to my knees and run my fingers through the fragrant mulch.

So how is it that I have the courage and dedication to keep fighting what seems like an insurmountable institutionalized culture of injustice?

I am who I am because Xavier taught me to conquer my fears, Conor taught me to never ever quit and never ever allow myself to be silenced, and Charlotte taught me how to make miracles happen.

Far too often, we adults see problems instead of challenges, and we fail to see the world itself. 

All of those damn trees are in the way! Where the hell is that beautiful forest that all of the poets and painters described and illustrated?

Maybe we are better off trusting our kids a bit more.

As Mr. Arabel said, “‘Maybe our ears aren’t as sharp as Fern’s.’”

Reform-to-English Dictionary: ALEC Edition

It is time once again to translate the words that “reformers” use to trick a lazy media and an apathetic public into supporting policies that run counter to We the People’s own best interests.

Today, we will focus on the newspeak experts over at ALEC, and the horrendous policies that they have pushed over the course of the last 40 years. The following are definitions of ALEC-related terms.  The model legislation cited is real, as is the spin, though I wish it weren’t.

ALEC (proper noun, abbrev.): The organization founded by religious fundamentalists as a tax shelter for illegal lobbying and legal bribery of legislators which creates model legislation  written by corporations to codify protectionist policies for their global plutocracy at the expense of regular people.

Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act (proper noun). Legislation which redefines those who pollute or torture animals as “job creators” and “small business owners in need of protection” while also redefining environmentalists and journalists as “terrorists” for videotaping animal torture, even while standing on public land without trespassing or touching anyone.

Economic freedom (noun). This form of economic freedom is provided by and for Wall Street. The freedoms purported to be contained herein are the exclusive property of corporate America.  Any attempt on the part of average citizens to attain economic freedom will be prohibited by the solidification of market power by those who can afford to buy their own legislators. Any attempt to achieve the American Dream without the express written consent of your governor (in exchange for a campaign contribution) is prohibited.

Economic outlook projections (noun): Refers not to economic outlook for the citizens of a state, but rather to the economic outlook for the corporations that benefit from legislation in place in a given state.  For example, Wisconsin is currently near the bottom in job growth and overall economic performance, but according to ALEC, corporate shill Governor Scott Walker has done such a bang-up job signing ALEC-created bills into law that they anticipate great returns for privatizers and other profiteers at the expense of the Wisconsin taxpayers, thus indicating fabulous economic outlook projections.

Environmental Literacy Improvement Act (proper noun). Legislation which mandates that in the teaching of environmental science, schools must give balanced treatment of alternative theories on the environment with no regards to the proportion of scholars supporting such claims. For example, in the case of climate change, about 97% of scientists think it is happening and humans are involved, while 3% (many of whom work for SPN think tanks, see below) do not agree.  In a classroom, treatment of these ideas would receive 50-50 treatment under this legislation.  In addition, the legislation bans any mention of political or activism-related aspects of the debate, but requires discussion of the economic aspects of the issue at hand.  The legislation establishes a council with 40% of the members with expertise in economics, 20% in educational curriculum planning and the last 40% in natural science, but they MAY NOT have expertise in environmental science. In other words, no one involved in the selection of curriculum materials is allowed to have studied the subject at all; certainly none may have any degree of expertise. That isn’t funny, but if your kids start demanding you tear up your flower beds and tomato plants or the field where they used to play little league to do their science fair experiment in fracking, you’ll know why.

Right to Work (proper noun). Legislation with an accurate, if incomplete name.  The original name, “Right to Work yourself to death without the protections against abuse, without job security, without contractual safety standards, without loyalty from one’s employer, without pay raises, without the right to organize, without the ability to bargain or strike, without the support of a strong union or professional organization, and with the right to work merely on the whims of politicians who may or may not like you personally or have a depth of understanding of the nature of your job or the economy in general” did not test well in market research.

SPN (proper noun, abbrev.): State Policy Network. ALEC’s dirty little secret, the SPN is a network of “think tanks” that have more cash than thought; these think tanks are paid to provide forgone conclusions.

Stand Your Ground (proper noun). 1. Legislation created by ALEC and modeled after the eponymous prototype from Florida, as if the citizens of the United States spent their days thinking, “Florida?  Absolutely, let’s all be more like Florida, where the government is so honest and sane.” 2. Legislation that insures that going anywhere you want and shooting people point blank because you are delusional or paranoid is now legal, while also insuring that other things, such as Walking While Black, are now on the spectrum between “suspect” and “capital offenses.” 3. Legislation written by the people who sell guns and ammo.

Virtual Schools (noun): Websites that provide the illusion of an education in exchange for very real tax dollars.

The sad thing is that once again, I have to work on a sequel. 

But on a positive note, Chicago’s very own Moral Monday kicked off a week of protests and activism against this insanity.  Six regular people (just like you and I) were arrested Monday at Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel for linking arms and refusing to leave the grand staircase that is now swarming with plutocrats. I’ll share more with you tomorrow about the fabulous work being done on behalf of all of us citizens.

But they cannot do it alone.

I need every single person who reads this to decide if democracy is worth saving.  If you think it is, you can head down to the Palmer House today, Thursday, August 8 at noon to remind all those Gordon Gekko wannabes in ALEC of what real democracy looks like. 

They are terrified of us.

They spend billions to take away our rights to fight them. Let’s show them what a bad investment it is to bet against the American People.

ALEC Part Three: What Can We Do?

Hopefully my last two posts on this blog helped shed some light onto ALEC, the organization that brings together lawmakers and corporations for the purpose of passing legislation intended to benefit big business at the expense of the rest of us.  You can read part one and part two by clicking the links.

I have tracked ALEC at home and its impact abroad. I have only been able to touch upon a brief overview of the ways that the plutocracy is exploiting regular people around the world.  For more details about the specific legislation for which ALEC is responsible, please check out the great work being done at the Center for Media and Democracy, Occupy ALEC 2013 and Common Cause.  You can also feel free to check out my resources cited in Part 2.

It is by looking through the global lens and then back at our present situation that we can recognize what author Chrystia Freeland has been trying to explain: the plutocracy is global.

The elites have exploited people around the world, and the globe itself. If we were to close our eyes and imagine countries instead of corporations, it would be impossible not to see colonialism in our foreign and domestic policy.

Activist and writer Arundhati Roy calls globalization  a “mutant variety of colonialism.”  Indeed, it is hard to admit that one is complicit in ones own colonial oppression, but it is even more difficult to remain in denial.

What, then, does this say for globalization as a whole?

It is considered practically treasonous to criticize the system at the heart of current capitalist economics. Yet we must not resign ourselves to the false dichotomy propped up by the corporate-owned politicians and think tanks that would have us believe that either we accept privatization and globalization as-is or cave to the radical socialist anarchists.

There is a middle ground.

As legal scholar (and now also Maryland State Senator) Jamie Raskin told Bill Moyers, this corporate capitalism is “a fundamental distortion of a fair market, too… It’s not just an offense to Thomas Jefferson. It’s an offense to Adam Smith.”

This is the crux of the whole issue.

The markets created by the plutocracy are not free or open. They are weighted heavily in favor of the plutocrats. Consumer-laborers have no chance at competition. The current model allows only for the exploitation of the middle and lower classes.

By educating consumers and laborers and encouraging them to speak as the corporations do-with money-individuals can begin to reclaim power, both economic and political.

We must learn about economics and finance so that we can no longer be tricked into voting against our own interests.

We must recognize that both capitalism and socialism have benefits and shortcomings, and we must learn to bring a variety of voices to the table to create policies that help support people, not ideologies.

We must stop pretending that trickle down economics works.  I was overdue when my pregnant mom voted in vain for Carter’s reelection.  Reaganomics has had my whole lifetime to prove itself.  My generation has advanced degrees that are going to waste as we wait tables and go without healthcare. There has been no trickle down, just a siphon going up.

The top one hundredth of one percent of the economic spectrum have seen exponential growth in their incomes and they have used it to buy political influence around the world.

They have empowered the top one percent and a smattering of upper-middle class elites to serve as their middle managers and enforcers.

The rest of us drown in debt.

Not because we are lazy.

Not because we don’t play by the rules.

Not because we don’t try our best.

We are drowning in debt because the game is rigged.

We are drowning in debt because even working full time (or more) at physically and emotionally demanding jobs isn’t enough for us to get by.

We are drowning in debt because our human rights to food, shelter, clothing, clean air and water, healthcare and education are treated as an opportunity for price gouging by people who have more than they can even imagine spending and still are so greedy for more that they invent tax loopholes only for themselves.

We must use our votes wisely to support those who create policies that give our power and freedom back to us.

We must use the power of the free market to buy only those products made by people who take seriously the notion of social responsibility.

We must claim our own power so that we can banish the ghost of Milton Friedman and create a market free from corruption, clout and cronyism.

We must create a market in which the American Dream can finally be realized…and exported.

ALEC isn’t the only actor on this global stage, not by a long shot.  But they are one of the biggies, and they have been rigging the game for four decades. 

The members of ALEC are in Chicago this coming week to celebrate their 40th birthday (and to collude to create more harmful legislation).  It is my hope that we throw a party that they will never forget.  One that puts a human face on all of the pain that they cause through their greed and deceit.

If you wold like to wish ALEC an unhappy birthday, you can do so in person Thursday, August 8, 2013 at noon outside of the Palmer House Hotel at State and Monroe in the heart of Chicago’s Loop.

I hope everyone is ready to join us in the fight to fight plutocracy save democracy.

People’s lives depend on it.

Meet Your New Oppressor. He Calls Himself ALEC.

In my most recent post on this blog, I wrote an introduction to ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.  You can read that post here.

In this post, we will delve deeper into the murky waters of privatization, globalization and colonialism-in other words, the many ways that corporations are becoming more powerful than people.

The gap between rich and poor is ever widening in this country. Journalist Chrystia Freeland’s book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else draws a parallel between the Gilded Age of the robber barons with our current age.

She explains that the same expansion of markets that makes the rich richer also makes everyone else poorer, with stagnating wages and diminishing opportunities, while the rich blame the poor for their own fate, rather than policies the rich themselves created.

The same right-wing political movement has influenced the judiciary, too, cutting off one more path to justice for the average citizen. Bill Moyers discusses the Citizens United decision and how it has changed the political landscape dramatically: “when five conservative members of the Supreme Court handed corporations and the super-rich the right to overwhelm our elections with tsunamis of cash, they moved America further from representative government toward outright plutocracy, where political power derived from wealth is devoted to protecting wealth.”

Thus by allowing unlimited donations funneled through secretive Super PACS (Political Action Committees), as well as other “charitable” 501c3 and 501c4 organizations, the courts decreased the value of a solitary citizen’s vote.

This has empowered legislators and executives with obscene campaign war chests while obscuring the money trail from view of the citizens.

Corporations are not people, despite Mitt Romney’s famous claim on the campaign trail. Corporations are now more powerful than we are and more protected from the reach of the law.

It is through this corporate takeover of all three branches of government (as well as much the corporate-controlled media) that corporations have given themselves carte blanche to pollute the Gulf of Mexico, contaminate the groundwater through fracking and manufacturing waste, violate labor laws, pay wages for full time work that keep families below the poverty line, ignore dangerous work conditions, deregulate gun sales and usage in a manner evocative of the Wild West, and literally kill workers and customers with negligence and unsafe products.
While many would be quick to agree that this situation amounts to some form of injustice, it is likely that many would still object to the notion that this is a form of colonialism.

While it may fit the definition of land appropriation and exploitation for profit, it is hard to admit that one is powerless and oppressed by the very products one is using.

That is fair enough.

Yet this picture becomes clearer when the frame is widened to include the whole world economy; globalization is in fact the export of these same policies to the rest of the world.

Let us shift now to the human guinea pigs of privatization and the global economy: the same countries once thought to be full of “noble savages” in need of a civilizing influence from European superiority. These same countries just so happened to benefit Europe through resource-rich appropriated land, exploitable laborers and something even more valuable: the chance to expand their own power back home through competition with one another economically.

The Berlin Conference of 1884 resembled a modern ALEC conference in more than a few ways. At that conference, elite rulers of the wealthiest and most powerful European governments made decisions from Berlin about what country would gain which share of Africa. Their money and power did the talking, and Africa was only informed of the plans when the invaders arrived.

Subsequently, the colonizers empowered selected demographics of locals with military, civic or economic power, which they would lose if they did not keep their fellow Africans in line to be exploited.

Less than a century of colonial rule decimated the continent for most Africans, who never received any of the trickle-down benefits of the foreign investment from Europe. Indeed, the spoils went to the colonizers and those they propped up; a caste system based on the colonial legacy exists in many African nations to this day.

Now history is repeating itself, but rather than European nobility, it is a global plutocracy calling the shots.

The results are striking. Social anthropologist K. Ravi Raman explains that “corporate capital is … interested in accumulation alone.”  He goes on to explain that multinational corporations are above the law, often having written the laws, and protection for those who live and work where multinationals set up shop is limited to the companies’ own corporate social responsibility guidelines.

Coca-Cola and others violate these guidelines freely in ways that cause more economic losses than gains, including giving away hazardous waste and calling it fertilizer and hoarding or contaminating the drinking water.

Others have come to the same conclusion, that while there are benefits to the upper and upper-middle class elites in places like India, hundreds of millions are still starving and now have less water and opportunity.

It isn’t just manufacturers and energy interests that are in on the action in developing countries.

All of these American and other plutocrat-controlled companies need to keep their VIPs safe abroad. Other companies are desperate to gain a foothold in places that are not friendly to Western economic interventions.

Rachel Maddow highlights the expanding role of private contractors in military roles in her latest book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.

She writes that the early thinking that private contractors would do things cheaper and more efficiently has proven false, both by billions of dollars in funds that have been “lost” in just the last decade and scandals ranging from simple incompetence to sex trafficking to war crimes.

Journalist Eric Stoner highlights the outsourcing of military contractors and exposes the direct recruitment of mercenaries that once supported the regimes of brutal South and Central American dictators like Pinochet to serve as representatives of the United States. They, like other contractors, serve as soldiers as well as private security for corporations looking to gain a foothold in new, U.S.-friendly democracies.

It is Naomi Klein who draws the connection when she writes,  “Occupied Iraq is being turned into a twisted laboratory for freebase free-market economics, much as Chile was for Milton Friedman’s ‘Chicago boys’ after the 1973 coup. Friedman called it ‘shock treatment,’ though, as in Iraq, it was actually armed robbery of the shellshocked.”

Indeed. Everything I read on the subject leaves me with a similar feeling.

I was tempted to continue this piece for a few more paragraphs so as to leave on an upbeat and hopeful note.

I realized that would be disingenuous.  There is nothing upbeat or hopeful about infinitely wealthy humans using their vast riches not to feed the starving, heal the sick or save the environment, but rather to destroy everyone and everything on their quest for more money.

We are talking about people with more money than they can spend in a lifetime.

They are using their money to make more money.

I don’t have a problem with that.

I have a problem with people who think it is okay to make money in a way that leaves them with the blood of innocent children on their hands.

They are bribing our government for the right to kill us, our children and families like ours on the other side of the world.

And they are laughing at our suffering all the way to the bank.

That is the bitter taste I would like to leave in your mouths, until next time, when we can talk about reclaiming our power and saving democracy.

Print References

Boldt, Allison. “Rhetoric Vs. Reality: ALEC’s Disguise As A Nonprofit Despite Its Extensive     Lobbying.” Hamline Journal of Public Law & Policy. Fall 2012: 35-71.        
Freeland, Chrystia. Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone     Else. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012. Print.
Klein, Naomi. “Free Trade Is War.” The Nation 29 Sept. 2003: 10.
Kusnetz, Nicholas. “Where Bad Bills Come From.” The Nation 28 June 2010: 22-24.    
Maddow, Rachel. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. New York: Broadway     Paperbacks, 2012. Print.
Paul, Jeffrey. “Globalization is a ‘mutant variety of colonialism,’ activists say.” National     Catholic Reporter 24 Mar. 2006: 12-13.
Pocan, Mark. “Inside the ALEC Dating Service.” Progressive Oct. 2011: 19-21.        
Raman, K. Ravi. “Community—Coca-Cola Interface: Political-Anthropological Concerns on     Corporate Social Responsibility.” Social Analysis 51.3 (2007): 103-120.
Stoner, Eric. “Outsourcing the Iraq War: Mercenary Recruiters Turn to Latin America.” NACLA     Report on The Americas. Jul./Aug. 2008: 9-12.

We Need to Talk About ALEC

We need to talk, America.  Badly.  So many people are waking up to the idea that things aren’t going so great for us regular folks, and thank goodness for that.

What I see, however, is a lot of single-issue politicking going on.  There is nothing more dangerous than a single issue voter, especially since most issues are interconnected (like education, crime, poverty, race, privatization, economics, jobs, land use, environmentalism, gender and so on and so on).

These issues are tied together in two ways.  First, we obviously do not live in vacuums.  We live in the real world and are pushed and pulled by forces from every direction at every moment, whether we perceive them at the time or not.

Secondly, the policies that are being legislated and implemented across the nation on all of these fronts are coming from one source: ALEC.

So what is ALEC?  What do they do? Why is understanding ALEC the key to empowering ourselves? 

This is the first piece in a series that seeks to demystify ALEC for my fellow average Janes and Joes out there. This series is the culmination of a year of research into ALEC, globalization, privatization and Citizens United, and it is my hope that it sheds some light on a subject that is intentionally murky and confusing.

Globalization and privatization are hot buzzwords in 2013, and they have been surrounded by controversy for many years.  On the one hand, followers of Milton Friedman have pushed the notion that bigger, less restricted markets are the key to a better world. On the other hand, protesters and activists around the world claim that the better world created by globalization and privatization is not open to everyone, and in fact exists as a result of exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few.

Globalization and privatization are beneficial to many individuals, firms and governments.  That said, I argue that unlimited corporate money in politics has created a de facto colonization of the public sphere by the plutocracy at the expense of the greater good.

Please let me begin by defining some rather nebulous terms. Globalization is basically the end result of increased international communication that has allowed for the exporting of political, cultural and economic ideologies to a world-wide scale.

Privatization is the act of contracting government services to the private sector. By plutocracy, I mean the wealthiest one percent of the population and the politicians who accept donations from them and collectively function as the ruling class of the global economy.

And colonization is the act of appropriating land and other property and resources held by individuals or their societies by those in power for the purpose of exploiting the land and population to make a profit.

Let’s begin in the United States. While Wall Street seems to have rebounded from the recent recession, Main Streets across the country languish. Jobs are scarce and people feel the economic pinch.

Yet our politicians seem preoccupied with everything but our checkbooks, except for the purpose of collecting our taxes. How is it that we are so very removed from the politicians that we, ourselves, elected? To put it plainly, there has been a concerted effort to widen those gaps, between rich and poor and between the powerful and the powerless.

I would argue that thirty-plus years of this same-old-same-old would indicate that trickle-down economics is a farce at best and an act of violence at worst.  So why do people still insist on this smoke and mirrors model for our economy?

One organization that has done much to empower corporations is hiding in plain sight. the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has members from corporations and members who are politicians. These members meet to co-create model legislation for the legislators to bring back to their own districts; as such it functions as a 501c3 non-profit charity which is tax exempt, meaning that it pays no taxes and its members can claim their donations and dues as deductions on their personal or corporate tax forms.

Nicholas Kusnetz writes in The Nation (28 June 2010) that conservative Christian activist Paul Weyrich founded ALEC with other conservative strategists in 1973, and “in the 1980s, it began soliciting the private sector’s involvement…[and] formed issue-based task forces, jointly run by corporate representatives and state legislators.” 

The legislators and corporations must both vote in favor of a proposed bill for it to become an official ALEC model. What is important to understand is that corporations which represent a relatively small number of wealthy shareholders have equal voice with legislators who represent thousands or even millions (at the federal level) of voters.

Conservative economists and Friedman-worshipers might argue that corporations in a democracy have every right to lobby for policies that benefit them, just like every other citizen and stakeholder (to borrow one of their favorite terms), and there is some truth in that sentiment, to a point.

There is a significant difference between ALEC and registered lobbyists, however. ALEC, by claiming charity status, can avoid rules on spending and donations that govern lobbying. Lobbyists must also register with the government; ALEC strives to keep both membership and donors secret.

As such, ALEC amounts to widespread legalized bribery of public officials who are wined and dined and provided with campaign contributions, pre-written legislation that benefits the industries that wrote it and  industry-friendly “experts” and “studies” from state-level think tanks funded by ALEC and its donors. (I will elaborate on the think tanks later in this series, but feel free to read about them here.)

Furthermore, ALEC is very good at what it does.  It boasts a membership of nearly 2000, including “nearly a third of all state legislators” (Kusnetz 23). In promotional materials, ALEC claims a success rate of 17%, meaning that out of an average of 1000 model bills introduced at statehouses each year, 170 are made into law.

Legislators pay membership dues of about $100, while corporations pay up to $25,000 in dues while also funding specific programs, think tanks, and special events for legislators.

PBS journalist Bill Moyers highlights some of the ALEC legislation tracked by the watchdogs at Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy. These include “environmental” laws that gut environmental protections and were written by energy companies, pro-gun laws written by gun makers, drug companies that create “tort reform” that makes it impossible for them to be sued for dangerous products, education reform legislation written by for-profit firms in the education field and more.

They have tracked bills that infringe on voting rights, unions rights, civil rights, and legal protections. With such widespread and secretive influence, the average citizen has little recourse.
In an especially deceptive move, private prison operators and other who profit directly and indirectly from crime have helped to cement the War on Drugs and other tough-on-crime initiatives.

According to author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, many of these policies were intended to target people of color as a legal means of disenfranchisement and oppression. In the eponymous lecture based on her book The New Jim Crow, she refers to this corrupt, right-wing policy-making as a “caste-like system that views people as disposable.”
To be sure, the corporations paying for prime legislation are quite pleased with the results of their labors.

They have rebounded from the recession and increased their market share by mandating the government purchase (or subsidization) of their products and services.

They have increased their profit margin by keeping workers underpaid, their customers under-informed and under-protected and themselves under-taxed.

In so doing, ALEC makes a mockery of the American Dream, all while feeding us a steady narrative that we live in a meritocracy in which we each deserve our lot in life, and in which history, nature, economics and the contexts of our lives do not matter so much as our gumption and grit, as if we were all characters in a Dickensian epic.

If you have the stomach for joining me in the rest of this series, I will outline the many ways that ALEC is turning our democracy into a plutocracy, what that means for our future and what we can all do to fight for the country and world that we deserve.

CPS Math

One billion dollars.

Today’s Chicago Sun-Times wasted its editorial page on hand-wringing denial that CPS is intentionally up to no good.  And they have swallowed the number $1 billion hook, line and sinker.

That has been the battle cry from CPS about the budget deficit this year. And frequently for the past several years, even though they have actually run a surplus when all is said and done.

But let’s do the math for this year.  Not even all of it, just some of it.  We will keep it really basic.  Just arithmetic. No statistical models or complicated formulas like the kind they use to turn raw test data into a weapon to disenfranchise poor children of color.

Months ago when the potential school closures were announced, the projected deficit was $1 billion.

School closures were needed to save money and cut that deficit.  School closures were sold as a way to save taxpayers $550 million (well that was one number picked out of a hat, but since it was much touted for a while, we’ll go with that). This amount is what it would have cost to make state of the art renovations to keep schools open. Never mind the fact that CPS used binders full of empty pages to come to this figure, which was contested by the schools themselves in the hearing process. What is important for our purposes today is that according to CPS,

$1 billion - $550 million = $1 billion


Of course now that we have decided to close schools, we have to pay for that process.  We need to fund the promises made to receiving schools, secure the properties that will now stand empty, hire movers, make renovations, etc. This will cost a number that has not been disclosed by CPS but a good estimate is about $15 million per school.

$15 million x 50 = $750 million

And according to CPS,

$1 billion + $750 million = $1 billion

Now, let’s be clear.  We added above and subtracted above that.  This means that according to CPS,

$1 billion + ($750 million - $550 million) = $1 billion

I bet you said that last one right with me.  You’re catching on, aren’t you?

So CPS moved to Flexible Budgeting. This is when CPS gives principals less money to spend while requiring them to pay for more things to keep our too-long school day “full.”  Parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is working day and night trying to come up with what the total budget cuts are.  (Why does a parent advocacy group have to crunch these numbers?  Well, CPS isn’t talking and principals and LSCs have been told to keep quiet.  This, of course, isn’t legal. Budgets are voted on in open LSC meetings, and the minutes of these meetings are part of the public record. Ethically speaking, taxpayers and voters have a moral and legal right to know how their money is being spent. I digress.)

According to Raise Your Hand, at last count, they are aware of just over $94 million in cuts to the schools.  According to CPS,

$1 billion - $94 million = $1 billion

CPS also claims $600 million in central office cuts since 2011.  Of course, if this number were true, the central office would not only have ceased to exist, it would have caused a disruption in the space-time continuum.  My guess is that they cut in the proposed budget and rehire with the surplus so that the cuts appear on paper, but never become a fact.  That is how I would do it, if I were an evil supreme overlord, anyways. 

In June, CPS announced $52 million in central office cuts on top of $31.6 million in “spending reductions” announced earlier in the year.  According to CPS,

$1 billion - ($52 million + $31.6 million) = $1 billion

Okay then.

Now it isn’t all cuts, folks. Teach For America, everyone’s favorite program for introducing children to the myriad ways that Wall Street bankers can screw them out of even their most basic democratic rights, will be collecting $1.6 million from CPS.  This money will be to staff schools with TFA “teachers” who have received a few weeks of “training” instead of postgraduate work in the field of education.  These temps traditionally stay for two years before moving on to their intended career.  To be sure, a few of them stick around, but the program was intended to fill vacancies that existed due to a lack of qualified teachers in a given location.  CPS thinks we need them here, and they also say that

$1 billion  + $1.6 million = $1 billion


And Friday,  CPS fired over 2100 teachers and other staff (including teachers’ aides, janitors, security guards, and more). These are the results of that $94 million (plus more from the schools that have not reported their data yet). It seems like 2100 jobs (plus the other 800 or so that were lost in the closings) should have shifted the needle a bit.

Somehow, CPS has cut and slashed and burned and destroyed without making a dent in the budget.  They claim that this is a result of $400 million in pension liabilities falling into their lap.  Poor CPS was mistreated so badly by the state who surprised them with $400 million in pension payments.

Here is the thing. Pensions are not a surprise.  Teachers get them. They are part of the contract, which means that in this state, our Constitution protects them.  They have paid for them.  CPS teachers do not pay into Social Security.  They can’t receive it.  And they have been paying their pension contributions all along.

CPS has not been contributing to the pot.  For a looooonnnnggg time, they have let it roll over and taken “holidays.” (I wish I could take holidays from paying bills.  Man, that would be cool.)

Now vacation is over and CPS is saying, “OMG! We had no idea, um, like, the check is in the mail, I mean, like, you didn’t really *want* that money, did you?  I thought you said we could have it. My bad. Did we mention we are short like, $1 billion?”

Yes. Yes you did. Couple-two-tree-times, as we say in Chicago.

CPS now says that this recent news is the reason for the budget deficit that they have been reporting for months (which, remember, is the same total deficit projected every year).

So now CPS is basically saying that

$400 million = $1 billion

So lets’ run the numbers again.

($1 billion + $1.6 million + $750 million) - ($94 million + $52 million + $31.6 million) = $400 million = $1 billion

What is important for CPS is to keep pushing $1 billion.  It is a catchy little number.  So catchy that it is an amazingly convenient coincidence that such a nice, round number that sounds impossibly huge is the number that is always the budget deficit.  No matter the year, no matter what drastic changes are made, $1 billion stands.

That number is so powerful that decimating 50 schools, upending life for over 30,000 children and killing 3000 middle class jobs in a struggling economy cannot even shake it.

This leaves us with three possibilities.

First, we have been swallowed by a black hole and transported to a land in which mathematics is a phenomenal new abstract art form.

Second, nobody at CPS is capable of doing basic arithmetic or even using a machine that can do it for them, or even finding someone on the planet who can add and subtract.  Even if they pay such a person to do the math for them, I am pretty sure that the budget deficit will be reported to be right around $1 billion before and after.

Third, CPS is now and has always been lying to their stakeholders every step of the way.  Lying to employees, taxpayers and voters.

Lying to the children.

Now, if the first scenario proves to be true, I will apologize to CPS and join them on their new venture in to the art world by decoupaging the Pythagorean Theorem to a shoebox.

But if either the second or third scenario is true, we must ask ourselves this:

How can we trust these idiots and/or liars to educate children?