July 25, 2016
Shocking news: Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president, Tim Kaine, is a pro-corporate, un-progressive political opportunist–joined at the hip to Wall Street, trade deals and right-to-work, anti-labor laws. Oh, and Democratic party operatives, like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, are calculating and mean, and they write awful emails about other Democrats.
Okay, maybe this isn’t such shocking news. Or, as historian Howard Zinn put it:
None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.
And he was writing in 2008, not today. Staying glued to the latest Tim Kaine or Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic National Committee shenanigans is a little like watching “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” As in, what did we expect?
I am not surprised that Kaine, as governor of Virginia, didn’t stop the death penalty, despite his personal distaste for it. Virginia is a conservative, “law and order” state. I am not shocked that Wasserman Schultz behaved poorly, and wrote mean emails about Bernie Sanders. (I’d love to see what the Sanders campaign had to say about her!)
Fortunately, I have found my own bright spot in the Kaine for VP pick: for someone (Kaine) who can be labeled a corporate Democrat, he actually seems progressive on education issues, as does his wife, Anne Holton. Holton attended the Richmond, Virginia schools as a child, to support integration in the post-Brown v. Board of Education era. “It was the first time,” Holton notes in a “love letter” she crafted to the Richmond schools, “that I had a chance to be part of something bigger than myself, and it left its mark on me.”
Holton also said the experience made her a “passionate advocate for public schools.” And Kaine, while mayor of Richmond, reportedly made it a point to visit a different city school every Tuesday. At the time, his own kids attended the Richmond schools, and, apparently, “not just the ‘best-performing ones.'”
That is almost shockingly radical, in this era of the hedge fund-driven “Democrats for Education Reform” (DFER), when the party line on education policy has been shaped by the Arne Duncans of the world. Duncan, like Obama and Bill Gates, for example, has been keen on promoting charter schools, testing, accountability and “races to the top” for other people’s kids, while sending his own kids to progressive schools protected by blissful bubbles of non-standardized “best practices.”
Conversely, Kaine and Holton have said they view public education as a public good. Holton is now Virginia’s secretary of education, and her “love letter”–captured in a local Ted Talk–includes testimony from Richmond teachers who “feel a calling” to stay in the classroom, despite clear hurdles and what Holton calls “excessive testing pressures.” (Holton mentions that 74 percent of the city’s kids live in poverty, a rate double the state’s average).
Why are the teachers there, Holton asks rhetorically. Because the students, whom they have “come to know and love,” need them. Whoa. What kind of non-outcome oriented hippie speak is that?
Holton ends her love fest for the Richmond schools by asking others to join in it: “I am a protective lover, but I am not a jealous lover, and so I want to invite you to love our educators, love our schools.” Get involved, vote, pay attention–“maybe run for school board someday,” Holton advises. Or, teach, she enthusiastically calls out, before asking the audience to consider sending their own kids to “our city’s schools.”
There hasn’t been a progressive education platform in this country since Lyndon B. Johnson first signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. Back then, it was one of several pro-family, pro-kid initiatives, such as Head Start and federal money for college tuition, put into place, according to Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer’s 2015 article in the Atlantic.
ESEA was doomed from the start, however, as Zelizer argues–with the government choosing to spend money on the Vietnam War rather than on eradicating poverty and equalizing educational opportunities. Even today, with Johnson’s ESEA law finally morphing into the Every Student Succeeds Act, Zelizer offers this reality check: “Without a living wage or better public housing and stronger civic institutions, all the education policies in the world will only have a limited effect on poor communities.” (Or, is testing more important than anti-poverty campaigns?)
Which brings me back to Howard Zinn. Writing, again, in 2008, in a piece for the Progressive called “Election Madness,” Zinn cuts through the clutter of gossip and surface level intrigue surrounding our presidential elections:
No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.
I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.
But then, the real work begins:
But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.
And into “changing national policy” on education, too.
Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.
–Howard Zinn, “Election Madness”
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