Sunday, July 15, 2018

This Public School Teacher Does Not Pledge Allegiance to the Flag by Aaron Michael Baker

I have not pledged “allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” in more than eight years. My personal objections to participating began as religious (see Anabaptist theology and practice). I was not teaching at the time, so like so many Americans, public situations that observed the pledge were a very irregular part of my life. Then, for the first four years of my teaching career, the pledge was recited at my school during first hour, which was my planning hour, so my non-observance was not an issue. Convocations, school board meetings, and Veterans Day assemblies are the most common occurrences where I am among my peers, the national pledge is observed, and I quietly refuse to participate.

It is quite easy to not pledge allegiance. I always politely stand and usually fold my hands in front of me. This is a very silent and non-disruptive form of protest. Everyone’s attention is on the flag, and everyone is speaking in unison. My silence and my right hand in the wrong place do not draw a lot of attention. Perhaps if I remained seated during the pledge, my behavior would draw more attention and thus be interpreted similarly to the high profile NFL protests of the national anthem. The influence of those like Colin Kaepernick have caused my objections both to the national pledge and to the national anthem to shift from the religious to the more political.
For 75 years, it has been unconstitutional for public schools to require or even compel individual students to recite the pledge. Teachers who are former or current military personnel sometimes find the 1943 Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette to be at odds with their personal experience and ideas of respect. Statutes regarding school observance of the pledge vary from state to state, but even where the pledge is required daily, there is no formal way to track if schools are observing this requirement. Whether or not a school recites the pledge daily is mostly determined by the level of patriotism among administration and the general convenience to the learning day.
Through mere repetition, our schools, especially our elementary schools, have woven the pledge into the very fabric of our society. Americans pledge for many reasons, and many Americans pledge for no reason at all. As with so many other rituals, in the process of being routinized, the pledge has lost much of its potency. Those who are mindful while pledging are likely filled with national pride similar to the way they would at the playing of a song such as “God Bless America.” Similarly, for many, pledging is simply a matter of nostalgia. It may mean something to them in a way that they may or may not understand. Americans reciting the pledge are unlikely to be thinking about fidelity to the U.S. government or considering the implications of the word “pledge.”
Americans pledge for many reasons, and many Americans pledge for no reason at all.
All kinds of Americans pledge allegiance, but the fiercest defenders of its sacredness tend to be social conservatives. But unknowing to those today that embrace pledging as an act that epitomizes conservative values, the pledge was written in 1892 by a self-described “Christian Socialist.” The National Education Association was even involved in the introduction of the pledge into American public schools. Leftist nationalism was clearly on the political scene at the end of the 19th century in a way that it is not today. In 2003, Gene Healy of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute strongly questioned why “conservatives support the Pledge at all, with or without ‘under God’?” Perhaps Healy and others could launch a conservative movement to formally end recitation of the pledge in public schools, citing its socialist propagandist origins.
Compared to national anthems, of which virtually every country has one, there are only a handful of countries that have national pledges. Besides that, there are some important distinctions between the performance of the national anthem and the observance of the pledge. It is not generally expected that people sing or even recite the words to the national anthem. The general expectation is to stand quietly with the right hand over the heart while the song is being performed. The song itself tells the story of the bombing of Fort Henry by British ships during the War of 1812. The national anthem does not include a promise of any kind and there is no call to duty for those who perform it or hear it. The reason the national anthem has been a source of controversy and protest is precisely because it is observed publicly much more frequently than the national pledge.
Pledging Allegiance
I cannot pledge allegiance because I do not agree with the majority of current U.S. policy, both domestic and foreign. If I were to pledge allegiance, I would be stating that I believe that the United States government is on the correct side of all international policy disputes. I have no plans to commit an act of treason, but that should not compel me to promise my loyalty to the U.S. government. I am not prepared to denounce my citizenship, but I would like to retain the future possibility of expatriation. To put it very plainly, the pledge of allegiance is very “America First,” and I am decidedly not “America First.” And in light of a resurgence of this political mantra, I refuse to take an oath to place America first. I do not want “America First” international relations. I do not want Trump’s “America First” version of fair trade. And I do not want “America First” immigration policies.
I cannot pledge allegiance because I believe that this nation is the most divided it has been in my 41 year lifetime. Of course, we are technically “one nation,” but that phrase is intended to evoke a sense of unity. Americans from all places on the political spectrum believe that there is a growing sense of disunity in the United States today. There has been a sharp rise in hate crimes sparked by the xenophobia and intolerance on display in the rhetoric of Donald Trump. Public demonstrations and protests are at levels not seen since the Vietnam War. We are a nation divided, and we have yet to turn the corner toward unification. I cannot publicly proclaim my confidence in the continuing solidarity of American society.
Americans from all places on the political spectrum believe that there is a growing sense of disunity in the United States today.
I cannot pledge allegiance because I do not believe that the U.S. government is providing “liberty and justice for all.” Where is the liberty and justice for the millions suffering under incarceration in our almost 50 year “War on Drugs?” Where is the liberty and justice for wage workers breaking their backs under a capitalist system that only fills the pockets of corporate elites? Where is the liberty and justice for young black men continually being slaughtered in the streets by a racist system of policing? And where is the liberty and justice for asylum seeking mothers having their babies stripped from their arms simply because they risked their lives for a better life?

Many people that are as disillusioned as I am may be able to pledge allegiance with an appeal to yet unrealized American ideals or from a place of belief in the spirit of the American people. I cannot. And yet, I am hopeful. I believe in progress. I believe that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice. I believe that there will be better days. Will I pledge then? I don’t believe I will. Maybe someday in the future, I will be “proud to be an American,” but that feeling of ostensible patriotism will more likely come out in the form of humming along to the national anthem when an American wins gold at the Olympics.

Why We Need a Department of Education by Steven Singer

Let’s say you have a starving child.

You take out a knife, a fork and a spoon. You hand her a cup.

This isn’t what she needs.

She needs food. She needs water.

But the utensils seem a precursor to meeting those needs.

That’s what the Department of Education has always been – a tool and a promise.

But now the Trump administration wants to do away with even that polite fiction.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the plan to merge the Education and Labor departments.

The reason you may not have heard much about it – beside the fact that bigger stories have overshadowed it like the forced separation of undocumented children and parents at the border, coercing kids into immigration court without parents or even legal counsel and then locking them up in cages in detention centers – is that the plan has about zero chance of coming to fruition.

Democrats oppose it and there don’t even seem to be enough Republicans in favor to get it through Congress. It may not even have enough support to get a vote.

Unless it’s a huge tax cut for the rich, no one seems able to get any actual laws through this GOP controlled legislature.

Moreover, the proposal is a definite step backward. The Department of Education was created in 1980 by splitting the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

At that time, its purpose was clear. It was a tool to increase funding equity and transparency while protecting students.

After all, the department was an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which tried to bring equity to America’s public schools.

As President Jimmy Carter said upon signing the bill into law:

“First, [the Department of Education] will increase the Nation’s attention to education. Instead of being buried in a $200 billion-a-year bureaucracy, educational issues will receive the top-level priority they deserve. For the first time, there will be a Cabinet-level leader in education, someone with the status and the resources to stir national discussion of critical education concerns.”

Unfortunately, those principles were never fully realized.

The Department did increase funding to public schools, but it didn’t end up dramatically increasing opportunities for the underprivileged.

Sure, it provided targeted grants like Pell Grants that did offer opportunities to select groups of students. But it didn’t radically alter our outdated (even then) funding system.

Our schools are segregated by race and class – worse now than they were then. Since they’re funded primarily by local property taxes, that means the poor and minorities get less funding than richer whiter kids.

And unless you’re willing to let your kids go to a school that receives less funding than others, don’t tell me it doesn’t matter. Rich white people have long complained about the money we spend on other people’s children while doing everything in their power to protect funding for their own.

In the late 1970’s, it was hoped the creation of the Department would be the first step to increasing federal funding of schools to one third of the total cost, thereby leveling the playing field somewhat.

But that never happened.

Now as then, the federal government only funds less than 10 percent of the cost.

To return to the metaphor with which this piece began, the creation of the department was like handing a starving child utensils without much actual food.

As the years have passed, we’ve used those tools for everything except nourishing students.

We’ve fed the child by guiding an empty fork into her cheek. We’ve poked and prodded her mouth with a knife.

The result hasn’t been for her benefit. Instead we’ve let special interests feed off of HER – charter schools, voucher schoolshigh stakes standardized testing corporations, the ed tech industry and even book and software publishers through the boondoggle of Common Core.

Many have insisted this misuse of the Department means we should do away with it entirely.

The child is still starving. It is still our responsibility to feed her.

You don’t do that by taking away her utensils.

Oh, you can feed her without them, but not very effectively. She can drink from the sink, but not as well as from a cup. She can eat with her hands, but not as easily as with utensils.

This latest proposed merger wouldn’t really satisfy anyone.

It wouldn’t do away with the department – it would hide it behind closed doors.

It would simply make it harder to see what was happening to it.

Moreover, it betrays an ideological bias against education for its own sake. Making the Department of Education part of the Department of Labor implies that the only reason one goes to school to learn job skills.

One can imagine a newly reorganized federal effort to cut anything from our schools that couldn’t be immediately connected with becoming a worker drone. And I don’t mean to imply this would be a new effort, because it’s already what President’s George W. Bush and Barack Obama were using the Department to achieve. But now it would be in the shadows and who knows what monstrosity could grow without the cleansing light of day?

This would help no one. It would be a continuation of the status quo (or possibly a doubling down on it) under a different name.

No one needs that.

What we need is to roll up our sleeves and meet students’ needs.

The child is hungry.

She has been sitting before us starving for decades and all we’ve done is give her the means to eat without the food.

Isn’t it time someone open the cupboard and get this kid something to eat!?

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Thank You, Wealthy Robber Barons, for the Freedom to be a Free Rider! by Steven Singer

Wow! I now have a real choice when it comes to my union!

At least, that’s what the email I got from the Mackinac Center says!

Now that the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the Janus vs. AFSCME case, I don’t have to pay any of my hard earned cash to my union!

I can be a free rider! I can get all the advantages of belonging to a union – higher salary, better benefits, better safety precautions – and I can leave it to the rest of the membership to pay for me!

That’s amazing!

And what’s even more amazing is who is sending this email to me!

I mean the Mackinac Center is funded by Betsy DeVos and her family, the Koch Brothers, Eli Broad, the Scaifes, and the Walton family!

Who would have ever thought some of the richest people in the world would take an interest in my union membership!?

How nice of them!

They lobbied for education funding nationwide to be gutted so they could get another tax cut!

They invested in charter and voucher schools and then demanded we build more of these privatized institutions with little to no accountability so they could rake in record profits!

They’ve weakened education at schools serving the highest populations of students of color and then benefited when those same kids turned to crime and were incarcerated in their private prisons!

Instead of holding politicians accountable for inequitable funding and instead of supporting teacher autonomy, they forced high stakes standardized testing and Common Core on me and my students!

They demanded my administrators undervalue what I actually do in the classroom but instead evaluate me based on my student test scores – so being given struggling students means I’m somehow a worse teacher than the person across the hall with the honors class!

They did all that but suddenly they’re concerned about my freedom to withhold union dues!?

Well Golly!


Gee Willikers!

Goodness gracious and bless my soul!

I must have been wrong about these fellers and these ladies all along!

Did you know that a 2011 study by researchers at Harvard and the University of Washington concluded that higher union membership encourages higher pay across the economy!?

It’s true!

They said the decline of unions accounts for as much as one-third of the increase in wage inequality since the 1970s!

According to the Economic Policy Institute, when union membership goes down, the wealthy make more money! Conversely, the more union membership goes up, the less money goes to the wealthy!


And despite all that, the rich are concerned that I have the right to stop paying union dues!

I mean if I stop paying my dues and my fellow working stiffs stop paying their dues, then my union might just have to close up shop!

And that would mean my wages would go down!

But these same rich people who just sent me an email would see their investments go up!

They’d take home sacks of cash! So much money that they’d probably drop some and maybe I might be able to pick up a few pennies they leave on the curb!

Isn’t that great!?

You know public sector employees including firefighters and police, and teachers like me are the largest sector left of the workforce still represented by unions!

According to BLS statistics, 38 percent of public sector employees are represented by unions!

It’s true!

Back in 1945, union membership nationwide was at its highest rate of 33.4%! That means back then about a third of all American workers belonged to a union!

Last year it was down to 10.7 percent!


But thank goodness I now have the right to get something for nothing from my union!

That’s going to perk things right up!

Sure, numerous studies have shown that declining union membership is one of the major causes why middle class wages have remained basically flat! But I get to keep a hundred bucks in my pocket so everything’s square!

One thing worries me, though!

I’m not sure many union workers are going to take advantage of this new freedom!

And I wouldn’t stop paying taxes even if I could! I like being an American citizen, and I like much of what my government provides by way of our military, infrastructure and social programs!

It’s the same with my union!

I mean I LIKE earning higher wages! I LIKE getting better benefits! I LIKE knowing I work in a safe environment!

I doubt many of my co-workers are going to stop paying their dues just because they can!


We’re not stupid! We know that if you want union benefits, you have to pay union dues! The Supreme Court can say whatever it likes! It can’t legislate passed reality!

Moreover, who would want to associate with a co-worker who refuses to pull his or her own weight!?

If I found out one of my colleagues was leaving it to me to pay for both of us, I’d throw a fit! I wouldn’t associate with that person!

If he or she came to my room asking for advice, I’d tell them to get lost! I wouldn’t eat with them at lunch, I wouldn’t chat about their day, I’d give them their walking papers, myself!

Frankly, the social cost would be higher than just paying your union dues!

So thanks anyway, Mackinac Center! Thanks anyway, Charles and David Koch! Thanks anyway, Betsy DeVos!

I’m sticking with my union.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!