Monday, May 18, 2015

Dear President Obama

Welcome to the Garden State. I hope your visit to Camden is successful. 

This letter is a long time coming. I have drafted it in my head many times as I lie awake at night wondering how much longer I can afford to remain in my profession and still keep my integrity, passion, drive, and yes, my home. And now you're here, so here goes:

I openly wept on election night 2008 as you gave your historic victory speech to a nation of adoring supporters of all races who waited generations for that moment. I have been awed by your unyielding composure over the past seven years as Congress has behaved like—well—spoiled, rich, white men who couldn't handle the fact that someone not like them was now Commander in Chief. I have willed you on to make the right decisions, to move this country forward in the face of tremendous odds, and dig us up out of the Great Recession because I knew that you knew in every fiber of your being, because of your history, because of your place in history, that if the poor and the middle class couldn't make it in America, no one could.

Your presidency has epitomized the promise of Emma Lazarus' words:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

But it pains me greatly to say that these huddled masses who look to you because you are just like them, have, in one significant way, no more relief than if Mitt Romney had won in 2012.   

Again, these words do not roll off my tongue easily, Mr. President, but you have failed our future—our children. Failed us in a way that is so profound, that it touches the very DNA of our nation. Your education policies are, in a word, disastrous. They are moving this country back to the pre-civil rights era. They are undoing all the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the brave men and women who gave their blood, sweat, tears, and yes, their lives, to ensure that every child had a thorough and efficient education, and who made it possible for you to be where you are right now. Your education policies are destroying one of the bedrocks of a democracy. They are further segregating our highly segregated inner cities like Camden. They are silencing the voices of millions of people who looked to you to be their "lamp beside the golden door". They are further marginalizing those already living in the margins, the "huddled masses", "the wretched refuse".

These are not just my sentiments, Mr. President. Since Arne Duncan, who never taught a day in his life, first rolled out Race to the Top, another civil rights movement has sprung up all across this country pushing back against your devastating 'reforms' that have turned education into a sick competition with winners profiting handsomely, and losers—namely public schools, teachers and students (particularly those of color and low economic status)—being left in the deep end of the pool without a life preserver. Educators, parents, and concerned citizens from coast to coast are outraged that our public schools have become under-funded test factories, our teachers reduced to scripted robots, and our students to CPU's—data in; data out—while those who are pushing, financing and profiting from this wretched agenda can afford to send their children to elite, private schools that wouldn't stand for this child abuse for one second.

I enthusiastically voted for you once. I half-heartedly voted for you the second time because the alternative would have been exponentially worse. But Mr. President, I am not alone. I'm willing to bet there are tens of millions of Americans out there who agree with me. Under your watch, our public education system is being sold off piece meal to the highest bidder while child poverty rages seemingly unchecked and teachers are simultaneously blamed and praised in a national theatre of the absurd that would leave even Eugene Ionesco scratching his head.

Mr. President, the new norm in teaching is that every year decades of experience are being lost as more and more veteran teachers are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether because they cannot and will not subject their students to this abuse. This is having a devastating effect on the long-term health of public education and the teaching profession. What does it say about an education policy that is so heavily invested in 'reforming' public education while simultaneously driving out those with the most to offer young educators? In a nation whose students not living in poverty are competing with Finland and other top-performing nations on the PISA, this will be your legacy. Are you prepared to live with that?

I expect this from Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Mitt Romney and all the rest in that crowd who want nothing better than to see public education turned into a voucher/corporate system so they can pad their coffers and maybe build yet another garage with an elevator, but not you. Never you. 

While you are in Camden today, I hope you take the time to speak with people whose voices have been silenced, who are no longer allowed to be part of the democratic process that runs wealthier, suburban New Jersey school districts. I hope you make the time to speak to parents whose children have been denied 'choice' in their public education because their neighborhood school was closed and they had no say. I hope you listen to the educators who are being robbed of their souls, forced to teach in a way that is antithetical to all that they have been taught and all that they believe about excellent teaching. I hope the voices of the citizens in the poorest and most dangerous city in America echo in your mind along with the voices of all those brave men and women who fought so long and so hard and sacrificed so much all those years ago, but who never lived to see the ultimate fruit of their labor: you in the oval office.

There is still time. You can still change this, if you dare.