Belle Chesler – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 04 Dec 2021 05:16:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Covid-19, our Public Schools and the Real-Time Lessons of Civic Democracy Wed, 02 Jun 2021 04:01:04 +0000 By Belle Chesler |

( – It seems appropriate that the 2020-2021 school year in Portland, Oregon, began amid toxic smoke from the catastrophic wildfires that blanketed many parts of the state for almost two weeks. The night before the first day of school, the smoke alarm in my bedroom went off. Looking back, I see it as a clarion call, a shrieking, beeping warning of all the threats, real and existential, we’d face in the year to come.

On that first day of what would be that fall’s online version of school, I was still reeling from the loss of one of my dear friends. As wildfires approached her remote Sonoma County, California, home, she chose to end her life. She’d spent the initial months of the pandemic isolated from friends and loved ones, her serene mountain retreat no longer offering solace. She left no note, only a tidied kitchen and, according to those who’d attended a virtual yoga class with her on the last day of her life, a peaceful smile. She was my friend and I loved her.

Marooned inside our house, all the windows and doors tightly sealed, I stared into the grid of black boxes on Zoom that now represented the students in my high-school visual arts classes. I wondered how I’d find the strength to carry us all through the year.

As I greeted them, the air inside my home was stale, smoky, and distinctly claustrophobic. It was becoming harder to breathe. I struggled to find words of uplift. What do you say when the world is burning up all around you?

Ad-Hoc Childcare

Unable to find solutions to the larger and more menacing threats outside my door, I shifted my focus to managing the chaos inside. My first and most pressing concern was what to do with my nine-year-old daughter during the school day. My husband, who works outside our home as a studio artist, was under contract for a job that would last much of the year, ensuring us needed income at a time when so many had none. However, it also left us in a new type of childcare bind.

Last spring, a few friends, also teachers, realized that it was going to be next to impossible to juggle parenting and homeschooling, while simultaneously running our own classrooms. In the spirit of self-preservation and of maintaining a shred of sanity, we decided that three days a week we’d set the kids up, masked — and with blankets and heaters once it got cold — on our porches or in open garages. We decided that, at the very least, left largely to themselves they’d develop skills of resiliency and independence, and learn to navigate their fourth-grade year together.

We put our trust in our kids and gave up control. In truth, we had little choice. We all felt lucky and incredibly privileged even to have such an option. No matter how imperfect, at least it was a plan. Our kids were old enough to make our ad-hoc solution work and they seemed desperate enough to socialize in the midst of a pandemic that they were willing to tough out Portland’s cold and rainy fall and winter outdoors together.

And so, until they resumed in-person learning in April 2021, our kids spent a majority of the school week together outside. When it was our day to host such a gathering, my husband set up the heaters, made sure the kids could log on, and left for work. For the rest of the school day, I would rush out to check on them between my classes, delivering food, warm tea, and more blankets if needed. I couldn’t, of course, monitor their classroom attendance or help them with their work, but at least I knew that they were together, and could rely on one another. I’d then retreat back to the little room that I’d converted from an art studio to an office/classroom in order to teach my own students.

Going It Alone

The energy, problem solving, and logistics involved in creating a “solution” to our individual childcare problems in the midst of a pandemic will undoubtedly be familiar to many parents. The disastrous spread of Covid-19 forced families to repeatedly engineer solutions to seemingly impossible, ever-evolving problems. It stretched families, especially women, to our breaking points.

It’s no wonder, then, that the push to restore the only support most of us rely on for free, consistent, and dependable childcare and resources — the public school — remains one of the most urgent and divisive issues of this period. However, the toxic dialogue that developed around in-person versus online learning created a false dichotomy and unnecessary rancor between parents and teachers. The idea that somehow there was a conflict between what teachers (like me, often parents, too) and non-teaching parents desired functionally obfuscated the true situation we all faced. Parents didn’t want their children to suffer and they needed the resources and childcare support schools provide. Teachers wanted a safe school environment for our students and us — and not one more person to die, ourselves included.

Buy the Book

If nothing else, the pandemic served as a stark reminder of at least two things: that the nuclear family is not enough and that schools can’t be its sole safety net. The ethos of toxic individualism that permeates this society can’t sustain families in such crises (or even, often enough, out of them). It’s a shoddy stand-in for a more communal and federally subsidized version of such support.

Since March 2020, we’ve suffered as our children suffered because we’ve had to do so much without significant help. And yet teachers like me endured our jobs through those terrible months at enormous personal cost, even as we were repeatedly punished on the national stage for doing so. We were called selfish, accused of being lazy, and told to toughen up and shut up, even as the most unfortunate among us lost their lives. What’s been missing in this conversation is the obvious but often overlooked reality that many teachers are also parents. Almost half of all teachers have school-aged children at home and, let me just add, 76% of all public school teachers are women.

What Students Actually Learned This Year

By the time my aunt, who contracted Covid-19 in the spring of 2020, died of sudden and inexplicable heart failure in October, I was no longer able to pretend that my personal life was separate from my professional persona. Isolated from my larger family, I found myself grieving the loss of a beloved relative without the normal rituals or sort of support I would have had under other circumstances. On the morning of her death, I logged on as usual and taught each of my classes, digging deep to make it through the day. I then cooked, cleaned the house, answered emails, and negotiated my own sadness. There just wasn’t the space or time to stop and grieve.

Despite waking with a heavy heart morning after morning, I would still log on and try to connect with my students. I had to ask myself: if I was feeling this exhausted, worn-down, grief-stricken, and anxious, how were they feeling? I had the benefit of financial security, experience, and years of therapy, and I was still really struggling. My students were coping with the loss of their autonomy, routines, and social worlds. Some had lost family members to the virus, a few had even contracted it themselves. Others were taking care of younger siblings or working jobs as well to support desperate families. Some were simply depressed. It was a wonder that any of them showed up at all.

I decided I would have to shift my thinking about what learning should look like in that strange pandemic season. If my students owed me nothing and their time was a gift, then I would have to approach teaching with a kindness, openness, and willingness to listen unmatched in my 20 years in the profession. I showed up because I knew that, even if students were silent and didn’t turn their cameras on, most of them were actually there and were, in fact, taking in far more than they were being given credit for.

Extraordinary learning has taken place in this school year. It’s just not the learning we expected. All the hand-wringing and fears of students’ “falling behind,” not taking in specific material in the timelines we’ve adopted for them, reflect the setting of goalposts that are completely arbitrary. That way of thinking is rooted in viewing certain kinds of students as eternally deficient and their struggles as individual failings rather than indications of historically inequitable systemic design and deprivation, or extraordinary circumstances like those we faced together this year.

The skills and the knowledge we promote as most valuable are tied to workforce demands — not to what should count as actual life learning or growth. When you narrow achievement to what’s quantifiable, you miss so much. You fail to see just how infinitely resourceful and resilient kids can actually be. You ignore skills and learning that haven’t historically been considered valuable, because it can’t be quantified. We’ve become accustomed to looking for skills that can be neatly measured and distributed like any other commodity. We’ve adopted standardized benchmarks, standardized modes of assessment, standardized testing, and standardized curriculum, but the truth of the matter is that knowledge is rarely neat and tidy, or immediately measurable.

This year our children figured out how to navigate complex technologies and online platforms, and many did so, despite considerable disadvantages. They had to learn how to self-regulate, how to deal with complex time management, often under genuinely difficult circumstances at home. Older students sometimes had to sort out not just how to manage their own schooling, but that of younger siblings. Some of my students demonstrated extraordinary emotional growth. Sometimes, they would even talk with me about how the pandemic had shifted their understanding of themselves and their relationships. They learned the beauty of slowing down and the preciousness of family and friends. They have a far clearer sense now of what’s most worth valuing in life as they step back into a world radically altered by Covid-19.

As it happens, much of their learning has taken place outside school walls, so they’ve developed a deeper understanding of the forces that shape and control their world. Students in Oregon watched climate crises unfold in the form of catastrophic wildfires in the fall and terrible ice storms in the winter. Together, we all had a real-time civics lesson in the fragility of our democracy. They watched — and a number participated in — a civil-rights uprising. They experienced their families and their communities being torn apart by political divisions, conspiracy theorizing, and a deadly virus. They suffered as the holes in what passed for America’s social safety net were exposed.

And yet most of them continued to show up for school day after day, still trying. And it’s a goddamn miracle that they did!

One More Layer

When it was announced that we would be returning to our school buildings in late April, I realized I had finally hit my own personal wall. My daughter, who attends school in a different district from the one where I teach, was to be in-person at school for only 2 hours and online for the remainder of the day. I, on the other hand, would be required to be in my building full-time, four days a week (with Wednesdays still remote). I had no options for outside childcare and no extended family or friends who could help me cobble together a plan.

Logistically, my husband and I were at an impasse. Personally, I was a mess. I’d lost four more loved ones and our cat had been eaten by a coyote. My husband, struggling to remain sober without the support of his recovery community, relapsed. My daughter had become increasingly anxious and fearful. When I tried to problem-solve an answer to our childcare predicament, my mind simply shut down.

For the decade since my daughter was born, I’d been trying to manage a difficult balance of working, commuting, taking care of myself, and raising her. I considered myself fortunate to have healthcare covered and an option at work for maternity leave. After all, my own mother, a kindergarten teacher, had been forced to return to her classroom a mere six weeks after giving birth to me (and she already had two kids at home to care for). Many women in America are ineligible even for unpaid Family Medical Leave. Upon returning to work after her birth and a three-month maternity leave, I had no sick days banked and had exhausted our savings. When I experienced a period of severe postpartum depression I pushed through it and never missed a day of work. I didn’t feel then as if I could rest or be vulnerable or simply put the needs of my baby, or even myself, first. It took me years to recover from the physical, emotional, and financial toll of having a baby. And then the pandemic struck.

As the discourse about schools, teachers, and teachers’ unions became more vitriolic and antagonism toward educators grew louder, I realized that I was experiencing yet another layer of trauma. It was as if the work I’d sacrificed so much for had not only been invisible, but I was actually being punished for it.

This time, I decided, I needed a different answer. I applied for a leave of absence and left school for the last two months of the semester in order to take care of my child and myself. I did so knowing how lucky, how privileged I was even to be able to make such a decision.

As We Emerge

It would be no exaggeration to say that I did not love my job this year, but I did it with diligence and fortitude because it was the way that I could still contribute. I developed an entirely new online curriculum and learned to teach by Zoom. I also showed up each and every day for my students, no matter what was happening to me personally. I did that because I witnessed the ways in which my daughter’s teacher showed up every morning for her and how much that simple interaction with another adult buoyed her, how much it kept her spirits high despite the mounting mental-health challenges she faced.

My situation is neither unique nor extraordinary. If anything, I’m lucky. Nevertheless, I feel irrevocably changed by the past year. Some days, I’m flattened by grief, wrung out and hopeless. Other days I find myself daydreaming of the transformative potential of this hardship, imagining a future that better serves all our children — one that acknowledges their shared humanity, the fragility of our existence, and the tenderness required of all of us to build something better together.

Copyright 2021 Belle Chesler

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.


Is the Trump Administration Trying to destroy our Public Schools, Too? Fri, 21 Aug 2020 04:01:40 +0000 ( – Seventeen years ago, against the advice of my parents, I decided to become a public school teacher. Once I did, both my mother and father, educators themselves, warned me that choosing to teach was to invite attacks from those who viewed the profession with derision and contempt. They advised me to stay strong and push through when budgets were cut, my intellect questioned, or my dedication to my students exploited. Nobody, however, warned me that someday I might have to defend myself against those who asked me to step back into my classroom and risk my own life, the lives of my students and their families, of my friends, my husband, and my child in the middle of a global pandemic. And nobody told me that I’d be worrying about whether or not our nation’s public schools, already under siege, would survive the chaos of Covid-19.

Pushing students back into school buildings right now simply telegraphs an even larger desire in this society to return to business as usual. We want our schools to open because we want a sense of normalcy in a time of the deepest uncertainty. We want to pretend that schools (like bars) will deliver us from the stresses created by a massive public health crisis. We want to believe that if we simply put our children back in their classrooms, the economy will recover and life as we used to know it will resume.

In reality, the coronavirus is — or at least should be — teaching us that there can be no going back to that past. As the first students and teachers start to return to school buildings, images of crowded hallways, unmasked kids, and reports of school-induced Covid-19 outbreaks have already revealed the depths to which we seem willing to plunge when it comes to the safety and well-being of our children.

So let’s just call the situation what it is: a misguided attempt to prop up an economy failing at near Great Depression levels because federal, state, and local governments have been remarkably unwilling to make public policy grounded in evidence-based science. In other words, we’re living in a nation struggling to come to terms with the deadly repercussions of a social safety net gutted even before the virus reached our shores and decisions guided by the most self-interested kind of politics rather than the public good.

A Return to School?

For teachers like me, with the privilege of not having to work a second or third job, summer can be a time to reflect on the previous school year and prepare for the next. I take classes, read, develop new curriculum, and spend time with family and friends. Summer has been a time to catch up with all the pieces of my life I’ve neglected during the school year and recharge my physical and emotional batteries. Like many other public school teachers I know, I step away in order to step back in.

Not this summer, though. In these months, there’s been no reprieve. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, the confluence of the historic Black Lives Matter uprising, a subsequent invasion by the president’s federal agents, the hovering menace and tragic devastation of the coronavirus, and rising rates of homelessness and joblessness have contributed to a seismic disruption of the routines and structures of our community. A feeling of uncertainty and anxiety now permeates every facet of daily life. Like so many, I’ve been parenting full time without relief since March, acutely aware of the absence of the usual indispensable web of teachers, caregivers, coaches, camp counselors, family, and friends who have helped me raise my child so that I can help raise the children of others.

The dislocation from my community and the isolation caused by the breakdown of normal social ties, as well as my daughter’s and my lack of access to school, has had a profound effect on our lives. And yet, knowing all that, feeling it all so deeply, I would still never advocate sending our children back to school in person as Covid-19 still rages out of control.

Without a concerted effort to stop the spread of the virus — as cases in this country soar past five million and deaths top 170,000 — including masking mandates, widespread testing, effective contact tracing, enough funding to change the physical layout of classrooms and school buildings, a radical reduction in class sizes, and proper personal protective equipment for all school employees, returning to school becomes folly on a grand scale. Of course, an effort like that would require a kind of social cohesion, innovation, and focused allocation of resources that, by definition, is nonexistent in the age of Trump.

Sacrificing the Vulnerable

In late July, when it was announced that school districts across the state of Oregon would open fully online again this fall, I felt two things: enormous relief and profound grief. The experience of virtual schooling in the spring had resulted in many families suffering due to a lack of access to the social, emotional, and educational resources of school. No one understands that reality better than the teachers who have dedicated our waking hours to supporting those students and the parents who have watched them suffer.

As refreshing as it should be to hear politicians across the political spectrum communicating their worries about a widening achievement gap and the ways in which the most vulnerable American children will fall behind if they don’t experience in-person schooling, their concerns ring hollow. Our most vulnerable children are historically the least served by our schools and the most likely to get sick if they go back. Having never prioritized the needs of those very students, their families, and the communities they live in, those politicians have the audacity to demand that schools open now.

Truly caring for the health and well-being of such students during the pandemic would mean extending unemployment benefits, providing rental assistance, and enacting universal health care. The answer is hardly sending vulnerable kids into a building where they could possibly become infected and carry the virus back to communities that have already been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

Take the example of my school, which has an air ventilation system that’s been on the fritz for more than a decade, insufficient soap or even places to wash your hands, and windows that don’t open. In other words, perfect conditions for spreading a virus. Even if I were given a face shield and ample hand sanitizer, I’d still be stuck in classrooms with far too many students and inadequate air flow. And those are just the physical concerns.

What very few people seem to be considering, no less discussing, is the long-term psychological trauma associated with the spread of the virus. What if I unknowingly infected my students or their family members? What if I brought the virus home to my family and friends? What if I contracted the virus from a student and died? No educator I know believes that online teaching will better serve our students, but stepping back into in-person learning while the virus is still out of control in America will clearly only contribute to its further spread.

Schools are unable to shoulder the burden of this crisis. Politicizing the return to school and pitting parents against teachers — as if many teachers weren’t themselves parents — is a devious way of once again scapegoating those very schools for perennial failures of funding, leadership, and policy. Forty years of the neoliberal version of austerity and divestment from public schools by both Democratic and Republican administrations have ensured that, unlike in many of the wealthiest nations on this planet, public schools in the U.S. don’t have the necessary institutional support, infrastructure, or resources to envision and carry out a safe and effective return to school.

To put all this in perspective, in its budget proposal for 2021, the Trump administration requested $66.6 billion for the Department of Education, $6.1 billion less than in 2020. In contrast, Congress just passed the National Defense Authorization Act authorizing $740 billion in spending for the Defense Department. Even with the proposed allocation of an additional $70 billion dollars for schools in the Republican-backed HEALS Act, the now-stalled second attempt to respond to the spreading pandemic, two-thirds of those funds would only be available to school districts that hold in-person classes. And because a majority of school funding is tied to local and state tax revenues, badly hit by an economy hobbled by the virus, schools will actually be operating on even smaller budgets this year.

Grassroots Privatization

It’s as if they want us to fail. Perhaps the most powerful foe of public education in the Trump administration, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, even threatened to withhold federal funding if local school districts decided to resume school totally online this fall. After she was reminded that she didn’t have the authority to do so, she pivoted instead to asking parents to consider other options for their children. That request amounted to encouraging them to pull their children from public schools (depriving them of essential funding) and instead seek out vouchers for private or charter schools.

DeVos didn’t just stop there. In an attempt to redirect funds allocated to low-income students by the CARES Act, Congress’s initial response to the pandemic, she ruled that school districts deciding to use that money for programs that might benefit all students (instead of just low-income students) must also pay for “equitable services” for all private schools in the district. This would potentially siphon up to $1.5 billion dollars of CARES Act money from public to private schools. Such schools have already benefited from Paycheck Protection Program loans that were distributed as part of the CARES Act. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that they stand to receive yet more money if anything like the present version of the Senate’s HEALS Act ever passes. It’s easy to see who wins and who loses in such an equation.

The fear and anxiety prompted by uncertainty about how public schools will function in the chaos of this moment is giving way to grassroots decision-making that will adversely affect such basic institutions for the foreseeable future and may even contribute to even more segregated schools. People like me — white, highly educated, and accustomed to having options — are scrambling to figure out individual solutions to problems that would best be solved by community organizing.

Some families are indeed choosing to pull their children out of public schools, enrolling them in online academies, private schools, or simply homeschooling their kids. Others are forming small instructional pods, or micro schools, and hiring private teachers or tutors to educate their kids.

The twisted irony of these developments is that many white people who support the Black Lives Matter movement are making decisions for their own children that will adversely affect Black students for years to come. Declining enrollment and white divestment in public schools will bring about funding shortages and educational disparities sure to undermine whatever gains those protests achieve.

The inevitable result will be more segregated schools, while the gap between the haves and the have-nots only widens. Ultimately, privatization on the smallest scale plays into the desire of those like DeVos who seek to undermine and, in the end, even potentially dismantle public education in favor of private schools and charter schools, which, unsurprisingly enough, were first formed to perpetuate school segregation.

The Survival of Public Schools

Public schools are deeply imperfect institutions. Historically, they’ve perpetuated racial inequities and solidified economic and social disparities. In many ways, they’ve failed all our children on almost every conceivable level. Their funding models are little short of criminal and the lack of resources across the system should have been (but generally wasn’t) considered unconscionable long before the coronavirus struck.

Yet institutions are made up of people and, many of them, myself included, believe that a free public education accessible to all is a foundation for hope in the future. In the end, schools may still prove to be our last best chance for salvaging what’s left of our fractured nation and the promise of democracy. Abandon them now, when they’re under threat at the federal, state, and grassroots level, and you imperil the fate of the nation.

Needed today are creative solutions that put the focus on the most vulnerable of our children. Perhaps enlisting our nation’s retirees, many of whom are currently isolated at home, to help small groups of students, or launching a civilian corps of the currently unemployed, paid to step in to rebuild critical public school infrastructure or provide supplementary support and tutoring for kids who might otherwise be left behind, would help. I know there are creative solutions out there that don’t just benefit the most privileged among us, that could, in fact, focus on the most marginalized students. Now is the time to be creative, not to withdraw from the system. Now is the time to pool resources, while amplifying the voices of students, parents, and families historically not invited into such conversations.

Long-term divestment in public education has brought America’s schools to a dangerous crossroads, where mistrust of science and expert advice is threatening the very fabric of this nation. The only way out of this mess is to reverse the tide. Do we really want to be governed by fear and self-imposed scarcity? Do we really want the gears of institutional racism to grind on, whether virtually or in person? It’s time to act more collectively, to truly put the “public” back in public schools. It’s time to set partisanship aside to protect all our children as we navigate the unknown and unknowable.

As I prepare for an academic year unlike any other, I expect to watch with terror as many of our nation’s schools, woefully unprepared, open in the midst of a pandemic. Exhausted and heartbroken, I will worry nonstop about the students and teachers walking through those doors.

Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher at a public school in Beaverton, Oregon.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Belle Chesler



Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “How did reopening schools become a political issue in the US? | The Bottom Line”

De-Funding the Great American School System for the 1% Fri, 19 Apr 2019 04:07:58 +0000 ( – Three weeks ago, I sat in a cramped conference room in the large public high school where I teach in Beaverton, Oregon. I was listening to the principal deliver a scripted PowerPoint presentation on the $35 million budget deficit our district faces in the upcoming school year.

Teachers and staff members slumped in chairs. A thick funk of disappointment, resignation, hopelessness, and simmering anger clung to us. After all, we’ve been here before. We know the drill: expect layoffs, ballooning class sizes, diminished instructional time, and not enough resources. Accept that the teacher-student relationship — one that has the potential to be productive and sometimes even transformative — will become, at best, transactional. Bodies will be crammed into too-small spaces, resources will dwindle, and learning will suffer. These budgetary crises are by now cyclical and completely familiar. Yet the thought of weathering another of them is devastating.

This is the third time in my 14-year-career as a visual arts teacher that we’ve faced the upheaval, disruption, and chaos of just such a budget crisis. In 2012, the district experienced a massive shortfall that resulted in the firing of 344 teachers and bloated class sizes for those of us who were left. At one point, my Drawing I classroom studio — built to fit a maximum of 35 students — had more than 50 of them stuffed into it. We didn’t have enough chairs, tables, or spaces to draw, so we worked in the halls.

During that semester I taught six separate classes and was responsible for more than 250 students. Despite the pretense that real instruction was taking place, teachers like me were largely engaged in crowd management and little more. All of the meaningful parts of the job — connecting with students, providing one-on-one support, helping struggling class members to make social and intellectual breakthroughs, not to speak of creating a healthy classroom community — simply fell by the wayside.

I couldn’t remember my students’ names, was unable to keep up with the usual grading and assessments we’re supposed to do, and was overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. Worst of all, I was unable to provide the emotional support I normally try to give my students. I couldn’t listen because there wasn’t time.

On the drive to work, I was paralyzed by dread; on the drive home, cowed by feelings of failure. The experience of that year was demoralizing and humiliating. My love for my students, my passion for the subjects I teach, and ultimately my professional identity were all stripped from me. And what was lost for the students? Quality instruction and adult mentorship, as well as access to vital resources — not to mention a loss of faith in one of America’s supposedly bedrock institutions, the public school.

And keep in mind that what’s happening in my school and in Oregon’s schools more generally is anything but unique. According to the American Federation of Teachers, divestment in education is occurring in every single state in the nation, with 25 states spending less on education than they did before the recession of 2008. The refusal of individual states to prioritize spending on education coupled with the Trump administration’s proposed $7 billion in cuts to the Department of Education are already beginning to make the situation in our nation’s public schools untenable — for both students and teachers.

Sitting in that conference room, listening to my capable and dedicated boss describe our potential return to a distorted reality I remembered well made me recoil. Bracing myself for the soul-crushing grind of trying to convince students to buy into a system that will almost by definition fail to address, no less meet, their needs — to get them to show up each day even though there aren’t enough seats, supplies, or teachers to do the job — is an exercise in futility.

The truth of the matter is that a society that refuses to adequately invest in the education of its children is refusing to invest in the future. Think of it as nihilism on a grand scale.

Teachers as First Responders

Schools are loud, vital, chaotic places, unlike any other public space in America. Comprehensive public high schools reflect the socioeconomic, racial, religious, and cultural makeup of the population they serve. Each school has its own particular culture and ecosystem of rules, structures, core beliefs, and values. Each also has its own set of problems, specific to the population that walks through its doors each day. Coping with the complexity and magnitude of those problems makes the job of creating a thriving, equitable, and productive space for learning something akin to magical thinking.

The reflexive blame now regularly heaped on schools, teachers, and students in this country is a misrepresentation of reality. The real reason we are being left behind our global peers when it comes to student achievement has to do with so much more than the failure to perform well on standardized tests. Our kids are struggling not because we’ve forgotten how to teach them or they’ve forgotten how to learn, but because the adults who run this society have largely decided that their collective future is not a priority. In reality, the tattered and rapidly deteriorating infrastructure of our national system of social services leaves schools and teachers as front-line first responders in what I’d call a national crisis of the soul.

So it’s no surprise to me that teachers, even in the reddest of states, have been walking out of their classrooms and demanding change. Such walkouts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington, and West Virginia have reflected grievances more all-encompassing than the pleas for higher pay that have made the headlines. (And in so many states, they are still being paid less than a living wage.) Demands for just compensation are symbolic and easy for the public to grasp. The higher pay won through some of those walkouts represents an acknowledgement that teachers are being asked to do a seemingly impossible job in a society whose priorities are increasingly out of whack, amid the crumbling infrastructure of the public-school system itself.

The idea that the real world is somehow separate from the world inside our schools and that issues of inequality, poverty, mental health, addiction, and racism won’t impact the capacity of our students to thrive academically sets a dangerous precedent for measuring success. Assuming that the student living in a car, not a home, should be able to stay awake during a lecture, that the one returning from a week in a psychiatric ward should be able to instantly tackle a difficult math test, and that the one whose undocumented father was just picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers should have no problem concentrating as her teacher diagrams sentences in English is a grand delusion.

In fact, among the many demands of teachers and their unions during the strikes of the past year were calls for more financial support for comprehensive social services for students. In Los Angeles, teachers fought for legal support for students in danger of deportation. In North Carolina, teachers are planning a new round of strikes that will, among other things, demand Medicaid coverage expansion aimed at improving student health. In Chicago, teachers included a call for affordable housing in their negotiations and so drew attention to the importance of supporting students both in and out of the classroom.

If schools are expected to pick up the slack for the gaping holes in our social safety net, it follows that they should be designed and funded with that purpose in mind. If teachers are supposed not only to teach but to act as counselors, therapists, and social workers, they should be paid salaries that reflect such weighty demands and should have access to resources that support such work.

Why Prioritizing School Funding Matters

There is a large disconnect between the lip service paid to supporting public schools and teachers and a visible reticence to adequately fund them. Ask almost anyone — save Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — if they support teachers and schools and the answer is probably “yes.” Bring up the question of how to actually provide adequate financial support for education, however, and you’ll quickly find yourself mired in arguments about wasteful school spending, pension funds that drain resources, sub-par teachers, and bureaucratic bloat, as well as claims that you can’t just continue to throw money at a problem, that money is not the solution.

I’d argue that money certainly is part of the solution. In a capitalist society, money represents value and power. In America, when you put money into something, you give it meaning. Students are more than capable of grasping that when school funding is being cut, it’s because we as a society have decided that investing in public education doesn’t carry enough value or meaning.

The prioritization of spending on the military, as well as the emphasis of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans on a staggering tax cut for the rich, corporate tax evasion, and the dismantling of what’s left of the social safety net couldn’t send a louder message about how much of a priority the well-being of the majority of this nation’s kids actually is. The 2019 federal budget invested $716 billion in national security, $686 billion of which has been earmarked for the Department of Defense (with even more staggering figures expected next year). Compare that to the $59.9 billion in discretionary appropriations for the Department of Education and the expected future cuts to its budget. Point made, no?

However, since federal school contributions add up to only a small percentage of local and state education budgets, all blame can’t go there. In Oregon, for instance, restrictions placed on property taxes in the 1990s artificially limited such revenue, forcing the state to start relying heavily on income taxes to keep schools afloat. Corporations are an important source of income for states. Yet, though corporate profits in the U.S. rose by $69.3 billion to an all-time high of more than $2 trillion in the third quarter of 2018, over the last 40 years the states’ share of income-tax revenue has fallen to half what it was in the 1970s.

Take Nike, whose worldwide headquarters are located only a few miles from the high school where I teach. It stands as a shining example of a corporation that has profited handsomely from sheltering income abroad while evading local tax responsibilities. Nike has a special relationship with the state of Oregon, which taxes only the company’s local profits, not those earned elsewhere. Adding insult to injury, according to The Oregonian, by the end of 2017, Nike had put $12.2 billion of its earnings into offshore tax shelters. Had that money been repatriated, the company could have owed up to $4.1 billion in U.S. taxes, which means it has a modest hand in the monetary shortfalls that leave schools like mine in desperate straits.

In reality, Oregon’s economy is thriving and yet how little it all matters, since here we are again on the precipice of another crisis.

In 1999, the state government formed a committee made up of educators, legislators, business leaders, and parents to create a reliable budgetary tool that would correlate school funding needs with student performance. This “Quality Education Model” set out a standard for what a “quality” education would look like for every student in Oregon. In the 20 years since then, the state legislature has reliably failed to meet the funding goals set out by that model. This year, it calls for $10.7 billion in education spending, while the state legislature’s joint ways and means committee recently released a budget that included spending of just $8.87 billion on the school system. Such annual shortages of funds have, over time, helped create the present gaping hole in our public education system. And each year that hole grows larger.

Restoring Faith in Our Nation’s Institutions

Public schools represent one of the bedrock institutions of American democracy. Yet as a society we’ve stood aside as the very institutions that actually made America great were gutted and undermined by short-term thinking, corporate greed, and unconscionable disrespect for our collective future.

The truth is that there is money for education, for schools, for teachers, and for students. We just don’t choose to prioritize education spending and so send a loud-and-clear message to students that education doesn’t truly matter. And when you essentially defund education for more than 40 years, you leave kids with ever less faith in American institutions, which is a genuine tragedy.

On May 8th, educators across the state of Oregon are planning to walk out of schools. The action, a precursor to a strike, is a direct response to the inadequate funding in the upcoming state budget and a referendum on the continuing divestment in public education. Teachers like me will be stepping out of our classrooms not because we don’t want to teach, but because we do.

Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Belle Chesler



Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

CBS Evening News: “Sacramento teachers strike “for what’s right”

The Kavanaugh Hearings Just Won’t Leave Me Alone Sat, 20 Oct 2018 04:16:24 +0000 ( – It’s been three weeks since Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony before the nation and I’m still struggling to move on. As talk turns toward the impending midterms, I find myself mentally pushing back against the relentlessness of the news cycle as it plows on, casting a spell of cultural amnesia in its wake. I’m still mired in the past, shaken by the spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings, and pulled across the decades into the darkest crevasses of my memories.

In October 1991, I sat perched on a stool in Mr. Bundeson’s seventh grade woodshop class listening with fascination as Anita Hill testified about her experience of sexual harassment by thenSupreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. To a seventh grader, the details, both surprisingly specific and appealingly lurid, were especially intriguing. What 13-year-old could have resisted the simultaneously bizarre and gross testimony regarding a pubic hair placed on a can of Coke? We were riveted. Who could make something like that up? Over the course of the hearing, our teachers rolled out TVs on carts and let the proceedings play during our classes. It felt like we were sharing a significant national moment and watching together meant we were all a part of history being made.

The full import of that experience wouldn’t hit me, however, until the week I turned 40 and watched Dr. Ford telling her story in front of another judiciary committee. This time, I was looking at the computer on my desk at the suburban high school in Oregon where I’ve taught visual art and film studies for the past 14 years. Taking in her testimony, I found myself growing distraught. As her voice quavered, I felt a surge of emotion so strong it seemed to paralyze me. I couldn’t stop looking even though I knew something inside was tearing me apart and that, no matter my emotional state, I would still have to pull myself together to face my first class of the day, only moments away. As the camera zeroed in on Dr. Ford’s face, her nervous gesturing at her hair, and the tears shimmering in the corners of her eyes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a woman sacrificing herself before the nation, just as Anita Hill had done so many years before.

As she recounted her experience with Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge, the internal wall of fortitude I’d built up over the years started to crumble. That wall, which had bricked in so many experiences — the catcalls, the comments from a high school teacher who praised my muscular legs in front of the class, the years spent with an abusive boyfriend, the boss who liked to show me his favorite porn, the men who exposed themselves to me in a park, on a bus, from a van — all started to spill out. There were too many experiences to catalogue so many years later, but they’d been there the whole time, ever present yet totally unmentionable. I had no idea how I’d make it through the day.

Walking into my first-period class on the history of motion pictures, it was clear that many of my students had been watching Dr. Ford’s testimony as well. Looking at them as they huddled around their phones, I was transported back to the seventh grade. I remembered how, during the Hill-Thomas hearings, we chatted at our small table in that woodshop class, making jokes, both confused and titillated by the spectacle. It was surreal to hear adults recounting interactions both intimate and grotesque in the most formal setting imaginable.

At that time, I’d never so much as kissed a boy, but I intuited that the nation’s fascination with what had transpired between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas had something to do with the way that older men had started to look at me that year. My absorption in the hearings ultimately manifested itself in a project I created that fall. I designed and made a cutting board with a silhouette of a fish carved out of black walnut surrounded by a sea of white pine. I named that cutting board Anita Hill.

The Messiness of the World

Teaching is often a balancing act between revealing enough of yourself to be seen as approachable and genuine and maintaining the privacy and distance that is part and parcel of professionalism, while keeping personal boundaries clear. Much of my teaching philosophy stems from the belief that individual and community relationships are the foundation upon which all learning should take place. Students, I’m convinced, learn best when they feel comfortable in your classroom. Delivering content is sometimes less important than creating an environment in which they feel visible and know that their voices are heard. In order to establish that sense of community, I start each class with a circle as a way to connect. We put down our phones, make eye contact, and simply share what’s going on in our lives. Sometimes we chat about the inconsequential details of our days: our weekend plans, what classes are stressing us out, funny anecdotes. Sometimes we go deeper.

As we gathered in our circle that morning, I looked out at my students’ sleepy faces and that veil of professionalism and privacy unexpectedly fell away. Suddenly, I was saying out loud what I’d only told a few close friends and family members: I, too, had been sexually assaulted. I’d spent a lifetime, I explained, being brave and strong, moving on with purpose and determination, and ensuring that the experiences I’d withstood had been formative yet not definitive. My students sat in stunned silence. I told them that sometimes the messiness of the world seeps into the classroom and that today, despite my best efforts, I’d been unable to shut it out.

What I didn’t tell them were the details of my story. That it happened in Peru. My friend and I were staying at a small guest house in a surfing town on the northern coast. We’d been there for a few days, enough time to become friendly with the owner, his wife, and their small child. So when I ducked into our room one afternoon to get something — what, I can’t remember — and found that man suddenly in the room with me, I was taken off guard. He quickly pinned me against a wall, one hand on my breast, the other clutching the machete he had been using just minutes before to hack away at overgrown shrubs around the property. He told me that my eyes were the color of the sea. He pushed his hips against mine. Without thinking, I used all of my strength to shove him away. The rest is a blur. I know that somehow I ran from the room and found my friend, but I don’t remember how we left, who packed my things, or how we got to the bus that would take us from that town. All those details are gone. His face, his smell, and that machete are not.

Will It Matter?

As the Kavanaugh hearings went on, more and more students became invested in watching them. Some asked to listen on headphones while we worked, some just wanted to talk about what they’d heard. As each class began, I addressed the fact that I’d been crying all day — no point in pretending, teenagers notice everything — and explained why. As I talked, I noted certain students around the room crumpling. Bodies pulled in on themselves, heads lowered. Some students shyly wiped away tears. A few of them asked to leave the room to get some air.

One student, bubbly and cheerful as she entered, became despondent when her peers told her about what was happening in Washington. Unable to listen to the descriptions of the hearing, she swiveled so that her body was facing away from the circle and put her head down on a table. I waited for a quiet moment to sit down next to her. Without any pretense and in a no-nonsense monotone, she informed me that she was just one of a group of girls who had been assaulted by a senior boy the previous year. She was unwilling to tell her parents, fearful that they’d never let her out of the house alone again. While I was sitting with her, our school security officer came into the classroom to get her so she could be interviewed by someone already investigating the case. The timing was impeccable.

The hardest part of that day wasn’t sharing my story or opening up to groups of teenagers about the intimate details of my past. It was listening as my students argued about whether or not Dr. Ford’s testimony would even matter. In their comments, I heard echoes of my own internal struggle. The experience of watching Anita Hill being picked apart and ultimately dismissed by those male senators in front of the entire nation had a powerful effect on my burgeoning seventh-grade sense of how to conduct myself as a woman: that even though I now had a name for what I, too, might experience — sexual harassment — if I called that thing out or made too much of a fuss, I would be the one who paid the price.

One of my students came up to me after class and told me that, though her stepbrother had assaulted her when she was younger, no one in her family believed her. She assured me that she was fine now because she had moved away and didn’t have to see him anymore. As she was telling me this, I couldn’t help imagining her, 10 or 20 years down the line, reflecting with startled pain on the way her own family dismissed her, the way the people charged with her love and care wouldn’t or couldn’t believe her.

Those Laughing Faces

At a rally in Mississippi on October 2nd, President Trump made a point of mocking Dr. Ford’s testimony, joking about whether or not she had really consumed only one beer and highlighting her inability to remember certain details of the night she claimed that Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her. What fascinated me was not the obvious cruelty of his series of low blows, but the beaming smiles and laughter of the men and women in that crowd of supporters in Southhaven, Mississippi.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them, beneath that veneer of laughter, had felt a twinge of something familiar in the pit of their stomach as they listened to Ford’s testimony. How many of the men in that crowd had given a passing thought to that one beer-soaked night in high school they barely remembered, the one that might have been the single most painful night of someone else’s life? How many of those laughing women were secretly reminded of something painful buried deep in their own pasts? How many of them would not or could not dredge up experiences long suppressed, fearful of the personal toll that such a reckoning might take? How many of them would be shocked to know about assaults suffered by their own children?

I wish I could say that, while the hearings consumed the nation, I stood in front of my students and made powerful speeches about moving forward with hope and courage, about telling the truth and respecting one another. I did try, but I have no faith that I did a particularly good job of it.

Instead, in a sometimes halting, sometimes teary voice I talked about consent, about kindness, about how compassion and empathy can be transformative. I told them that I would listen, even when it seemed like no one else would. I believed what I was saying and yet there was still that enormous emotional weight in my chest, the weight of Anita Hill’s legacy, of Dr. Ford’s testimony, of a lifetime of unwanted encounters, of the rapes and attempted rapes of loved ones and friends, of the stories my students shared with me during the hearings, as well as in the years that preceded them. Itwas a weight that made it hard to speak, let alone lead my students. In the end, I ran out of words and fell back on silence.

Ultimately, of course, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, though deemed credible by those on both sides of the political aisle, didn’t alter the course of Judge Kavanaugh’s trajectory. He will sit on that hallowed bench, the residue of those hearings fading into an inconvenient stain on the CV of an otherwise charmed life. For those of us still struggling to move forward, the memory of the hearings, and all it represented, will be seared, as Dr. Ford might have put it, into the hippocampus, never to fade.

Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.

Copyright 2018 Belle Chesler


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar on questioning Brett Kavanaugh about blacking out | The View