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Keeping Education on the Radar

A conversation with Elijah Armstrong

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.

Sarah Jaffe with Elijah Armstrong:

Elijah Armstrong: I am Elijah Armstrong. I work with the National Education Association. I am an education organizer with the teachers’ union.

Sarah Jaffe: This past week had some interesting moments on the education front. First off, I wanted to ask you about Betsy DeVos’s visit to a Historically Black College and the welcome that she received, or didn’t receive.

EA: I was extremely proud to see the students resist Betsy DeVos, despite the administration bringing her against their will and having her give a commencement speech instead of actually being there to dialogue about her constant destruction of education, primarily public education. So it was great to see the students stand up against that. I was really inspired by it. I was really happy to see that they didn’t just allow her to come there and it be business as usual.

SJ: She had made some particularly, shall we say, ignorant comments about the history of universities like Bethune-Cookman in the past, right?

EA: Right. Her saying that HBCUs are definition of school choice is just not true at all. It is a choice [between] deciding not to be educated or being educated. If that is what you mean by choice, then yes, that was the choice that was given to folks. The institutional racism that didn’t allow folks to receive higher education was the cause for the birth of Historically Black Colleges and for her to make it seem like it was the same as choosing between a private school and a public school is just really disheartening and just shows her lack of understanding of history and also even education as an institution. That someone who is going to be the Secretary, it is very disheartening that she doesn’t understand the history of education in the United States nor does she even have the time to want to learn that and actually try to better education, to just push the same agenda that she has been pushing since she was in Michigan, just destroying education because she doesn’t see education as a public good, but more as a commodity.

SJ: I thought the comments from the school administration were interesting, saying that they needed to make friends with this administration. And, of course, there was that photo op of Trump with HBCU presidents.

When you destroy a school, you destroy that community.

EA: Right. They are always very good with optics and they understand symbolism. They will take the picture with us even though they invite us to a meeting that actually discusses really nothing and then turn around in the same breath and say something like, “Oh, well, looking into it now, that funding that we said we were going to do may be unconstitutional.” They present themselves as one way, but in the same breath do something that is completely contradictory to what they just did, this has pretty much been his whole administration. So, why we think it would be any different with us, I don’t know. That is just the game that he plays. It is the whole, “Oh, I am with you” and then in the same breath, “I am against you.” It is a tactic they have been doing for years and Trump has really mastered that and I feel like he has been doing well, tricking people with his false narratives.

SJ: In the same week, we saw Paul Ryan show up at Harlem Success Academy, a charter school in New York and also greeted with a lot of protest. It is interesting to look at these two events together.

EA: That is exactly what I am saying. After you get everybody with the horrible health care thing that he just did in the House, you run and try to have Betsy DeVos go down to speak to Bethune and then you have Paul Ryan go to the Harlem Success Academy to make it seem like you care about black and brown folks, especially in education. These are some of the shining examples of things that you don’t really support.

Even with the charter school piece, charter schools work on very small scales, but not up to large scale. When you try to actually privatize schools, which is what folks have been doing, then it makes education a commodity. Then, it is education only to come to graduation. You really minimalize and trivialize it so that you can sell it to folks. In order for you to sell something to someone, you have to make them think that your service is needed. To make your services needed, you do all types of things that have been happening in education over the years. It is always the first thing they cut to balance the budget. It is always horribly underfunded. Then, somebody pops up and will be like, “Oh, well, we should grade schools” and “Oh, well, the schools that we go to are different than the schools that you go to. You can have the same type of school that we have.”

What has been happening in education over the last twenty/thirty years—people talk a lot about the prison-industrial complex and about the pharmaceutical industrial complex, but folks don’t talk enough about the educational industrial complex. Education is where all these things come together and that is what we have been having for the last twenty-something years is an educational-industrial complex where you have all these businesses come in trying to provide a service and really privatize education, which is our last public good.

Republicans have been doing this for the last twenty or so years. Especially DeVos. Michigan is one of the worst states when it comes to education. I have visited those schools and those communities and when you destroy a school, you destroy that community. You can go to any community in America and I can tell you how good that community is doing based off of the level of education in that community. So it is also, by design, destroying our communities and also using them for justification in the areas where they do take over these schools and charterize them, all these new high-rises go up, public housing goes away, and it is supposed to bring in mixed-income [housing] and these other words that they love to use, but really it is pushing out the poor people that live there, bringing in new folks, and the school is used as the hook to bring folks together. Education is a huge piece that we just haven’t really been talking about enough in a real way that has really been affecting, especially our communities of color. The destruction of public education is a direct correlation, all these things are directly tied to it.

They own the textbooks. They own the tests. They even own the equipment that goes in the schools, all the different software. It is a billion–dollar industry.

SJ: It is interesting when you say that commodifying education makes it all about that graduation moment. When you think about it that way, watching the students turn their back on Betsy DeVos is also their turning their back on that idea that this is just about getting your degree.

EA: Absolutely. I thought that was huge. That is what they are always trying to make it seem, that the end goal is graduation. But graduation is just one component. That graduation simply says that you are able to follow a process and able to do the things necessary to get a piece of paper that says you are teachable and you have knowledge in a specific subject. Usually, that is what a bachelor’s is. For that to be the end-all be-all of education is really selling education very short.

That is an extremely businesslike way of thinking about something, where it is just the bottom line. Education in itself doesn’t have a bottom line like with business. With business you have a bottom line. It is a profit motive. Then, if you flip that and commodify education, then the profit motive would be graduation. That is the bottom line. There is nothing else better than graduation.

But, we all know in education you learn much more. You learn social norms, you learn things about yourself, how to figure out how you are going to move and act in this world and be in this world. Through education, you learn how to be social and make friends. You even learn the bad things. You learn about the bullies, you learn about racism. It doesn’t necessarily have to be taught to you, you can see it when you go to the school yard and how segregated they are. You actually learn everything about the world through education. So, for you to try to bottom-line it, lets me know that somebody is profiting off if it. That someone has a motive, they want a profit and simply make education about graduation. But, you go to these Ivy League schools and some of the most “successful” people didn’t even graduate. So, if the bottom line is graduation and some of the most successful people in the world never graduated, then education clearly must be bigger than that. But, why is it that it is being pushed to certain communities that this is the only thing that matters in education?

SJ: One of the things that I have watched over the last few years is there has been a shift away from unequivocal, bipartisan support for charter schools. That there really is a growing movement in this country that supports public schools, that really is willing to fight for public schools. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.

EA: I am a part of AROS, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. It is made up of parents, community groups, teachers unions, other social justice nonprofits that are all about reclaiming public schools and having the type of schools that our communities deserve. That is an ongoing movement that has been happening. We have been having walk-ins where folks from the community, unions, parents, students, all walk into schools instead of walking out. The symbolism behind it is that you are walking in to reclaim your school because a lot of public schools aren’t friendly to the public, unfortunately. Like, trying to get into some of these public schools almost feels like you are trying to get into jail or something to that effect, because there are so many restrictions and the way it is run doesn’t seem as welcoming. Not the type of school that folks want.

We are envisioning getting folks to envision that these are your schools. They are from your communities. They are paid by your tax dollars. We should have fully funded public schools and we should have the type of schools that we want. Teachers shouldn’t worry about having to teach to a test, students have the pressure of these standardized tests that we know are biased. All these things. Wrap-around services, because a lot of these communities are impoverished. Having health services in these schools helps the surrounding community.

We know what type of schools that we need and we are trying to get. It is a growing movement of folks claiming and demanding the type of schools that we want and not allowing them to privatize them and destroy public education. If they destroy public education, if they privatize it, then we know what happens when things get privatized. That doesn’t mean better. In most cases, it usually means worse. Now someone has ownership over it and they can decide and they can discriminate at their leisure because they own it. We have to keep education public so that the people own it, so that we can decide what type of schools and what type of education that we want.

With the rise of “school choice” and vouchers, they are trying to take education down that privatization route because they are rewarded from it. The money goes into their hands. They own the textbooks. They own the tests. They even own the equipment that goes in the schools, all the different software. It is a billiondollar industry. I tell folks, you spend half a trillion dollars as a nation on education. That is money that won’t go away. So, of course, corporations are always trying to find ways to get their hands on that type of money, because that money is going to come in.

We have got to fight for it and we have got to fight for it now. We have seen what happens when you take away the funding from these public schools and you put them in these charter schools that don’t have the same accountability. Some of these schools are fly-by-nights that are just literally there to take money. Other schools literally destroy these kids’ confidence by constantly over-testing them, burning out the teacher workforce because teachers are held to these ridiculous market-based standards where their whole evaluation is based off of student test performance and they understand that these students are coming from poverty, so it is not that they can’t understand and process information, but they are dealing with so much that they are not always necessarily there. It is a lose/lose cycle for everyone. And then, they are deeming these folks as failures on top of that. No one wants to be associated with anything that is failing.

There is a huge movement right now, like I was saying. AROS are not the only ones. There are other different coalitions, but all of us hopefully are coming together and are working together around demanding the type of public schools that our communities deserve.

Education often has slipped off the radar with this administration.

SJ: I was just thinking about even the graduate student teachers who are hunger strike at Yale. This really is everywhere, even at the richest universities, you still have teachers fighting to get paid.

EA: I am not as abreast on that, I can’t really speak on it, but I definitely support what they are doing and bringing attention to that cause. It just speaks volumes that even at Yale… When you think about integration, the only level of education that really didn’t get integrated was Ivy League schools. State schools and other schools kind of got integrated, but really, that was a monetary thing. Television came around, they were able to use that to get profits of off folks through the athletic program. But in your Ivy League schools, whether it was sports or academics, they still have really never integrated truly. They are still predominantly white institutions that folks of color still struggle to actually be a part of because they don’t really allow the space in a real way. I think what the Yale graduate students are doing is awesome, to really try to continue to shed light on that.

Ivy League schools are the place where literally the folks that run this world and create jobs for folks come from. None of the folks that look like me are there then that just literally means that we are going to be working class forever.

SJ: We are looking at the Trump administration on so many levels: health care, immigration, deportations, prisons and policing, and now the FBI this week. Education often has slipped off the radar with this administration. It would be great to hear a little bit more about what is going on with the education movement right now. Where are there struggles that people should know about around the issue of public schools?

EA: That is the thing, education intersects with all of those things. We talk about policing, the policing that happens to folks in the community, they get their first taste of that in schools. It is funny how the whole zero tolerance policies came about was because of what happened after Columbine when disgruntled students decided to, unfortunately, take the lives of others and themselves, but that was in suburbia in Colorado. But most of the security and things and measures took place in inner-city schools. The places that actually were the most affected by the zero tolerance policies were places where none of that had ever taken place. When you go to the Detroits, the Chicagos, and Philadelphias and Baltimores they have all these metal detectors and things like that—but if you go to Columbine, I have been to Colorado. There are no metal detectors in those schools, but that is the school where it happened.

It makes you also think of “Who are we policing and who are we profiling and who are we protecting?” You hear these horrible stories about school resource officers constantly slamming kids and things like that. When you look at those videos, the thing that is constant is that the person that is getting slammed is usually a person of color. Whether it is a woman or a man, it is usually a person of color being slammed and it doesn’t usually matter the age. I have seen videos of a kid as young as five getting arrested over a tantrum, a young lady up to seventeen/eighteen being slammed for being late to class. It varies.

To me, how folks of color have been treated in the education system is literally a direct correlation of how we are treated outside in the community. If we are criminalized in our schools, we are going to be criminalized when we are in our communities, as well. There is a correlation.

Then, we talk about the immigration piece. That also directly comes into the education piece. Kids are being picked up, ICE raids are happening at bus stops. Kids are afraid to go to school or walk home from school with their parents or have their parents come pick them up because literally they are waiting at these bus stops and following kids home because they are profiling kids who they think are undocumented and following them home and deporting them or their parents. That is happening from schools.

Or, you have got children who are being bullied simply because they are Muslim or simply because they are Latino and things like that. Those things happen in schools. They are a microcosm.

To me, education is always there. Now, whether it is talked about in a way where folks can see the direct connections, that is different. But, it is very prevalent in all things. Even with the health care piece. Most of the folks that need health care also go to schools that are 95 percent or 100 percent Title I schools, in highly impoverished areas that are all kind of pushed together in one area so they are all completely underfunded. Those kids, their parents, their families are the ones that are suffering the most from this health care piece. It is just like how now in the school system where they can do re-zoning and make sure all these schools are supplemented with enough resources for them to be sustainable, but they purposely make sure that these schools are highly concentrated with poverty and then those are the schools that are always subject to low test scores and the schools that need to be improved and things like that. But, if these kids don’t have the resources, you are literally stripping them of their resources that they need and then calling them failures and saying it is their fault. The same way that they are stripped and they don’t have the services that they need, it is the same thing that is happening with health care. The folks that are the most affected, those students go to those schools, they come from those areas.

All the things, to me, intersect at the education level. You can literally look at education and pick an issue and I can tell you how that plays out outside of the education arena. To me, it is pivotal. And, of course, I am biased because I am an education organizer, but I see all the different parallels and tracks and how they all intersect, but we are not necessarily talking about it the same way. What we are trying to do in the education movement is get our folks to understand that. There has been a big effort for us to be a part of the immigration fight and the Fight for $15 and the fight for health care and the fight against policing. We were even part of the big May Day celebration that happened May 1 where we were with all the different groups and celebrating not only workers’ rights but immigrant rights, really trying to get folks to see that the education movement has always been there, but we are trying to be better allies and make sure that we really see ourselves as a part of the overall movement.

SJ: How can people keep up with you and your work?

EA: The Facebook page, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, you follow us there and get all the updates on what is going on in public education around the country. Also, you can follow me on Facebook, as well, Elijah Armstrong. You can just type me in and I usually pop up.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.