PRESENT AT THE CREATION
Peter R. Denton
Chairman and Founder
Excellent Education for Everyone, Inc. (E3)
April 12, 2007
Coalition for Educational Freedom
Interesting title for a talk; not one I came up with, we have Dan Gaby to thank for that.
Present at the Creation: Does that make me Adam? No. Probably not Eve, though one never knows these days; I certainly was the apple of my mother’s eye, and the teacher’s union certainly thinks I’m the snake. No way I qualify for the other person that was “Present at the Creation” though my kids seem to think I try to act like him.
Well, it turns out Dan meant the creation of E3; a different story, and one I know something about. In 1998, my wife and I attended a conference on family investing and philanthropy, with an emphasis on education. We realized we had enough resources to be more than comfortable, so what was the point of working for more. We had always been upset about the quality of the supposedly good suburban schools our two children attended, and one of my sisters was one of the 3 or 4 people who made charter schools a reality in Washington, DC. We knew public schools were not up to snuff and I knew a tiny bit about school choice.
I HAD A DREAM
I had a dream that I had that money, the time, the organizational skills, and the ridiculous optimism to fix New Jersey public schools. My plan was this: I would start a public policy institute. We would spend a year and $250,000 to hire good educational consultants to design the proper public education system. Then we would spend another $250,000 and another year hiring lobbyists to convince the legislature to pass the bills needed to implement our vision. Oh yes, I HAD A DREAM. But dreams can become nightmares. Was this dream to become a nightmare?
TALE OF TWO EDUCATION SYSTEMS – “THE BIG LIE”
I had to get educated about education. One of our supporters took me to Trenton, to the steps of the state capital, and told me to look up and down the street. “What is the biggest building you see?”, he asked. “That one”, I said. Whose building is it? I didn’t know (and didn’t realize I cared). “That’s the NJEA building”, he said; “their revenue is over $60 million/year. They spend that $60 million to make sure your dreams are nightmares.
So what is the truth about education in New Jersey? The truth is we have two different public education systems in New Jersey: Urban and Suburban:
• Suburban is mostly white; urban, black and hispanic;
• Graduation rates: suburbs-75% (plus/minus); Urban-25% and less; Camden in June of 2005 graduated 118 seniors out of a senior class of about 550, and a total K-12 enrollment of over 15,000;
• NJ’s urban (or Abbott) districts spend over $20,000/child/yr, the suburbs about $13,000;
• There is school choice in the suburbs, and a bit, but only a bit, in urban districts;
• This is institutionalized SEGREGATION: BY RACE, BY GEOGRAPHY AND BY SPENDING, BUT NOT THE WAY YOU THINK IT WOULD BE;
• The teacher’s union and the rest of education establishment repeat their big lie about how great our public education system is; but the truth is they control an expensive, dysfunctional segregated school system that does not educate children of color.
• There are 32,000 first graders in NJ’s urban public schools today. In 12 years, 24,000 of them will not have high school diplomas. What kind of life will they have? Prison, drugs, death? 24,000 first graders (and 24,000 second graders, and third graders…) all with little hope for a productive life.
“WHERE IS THE RAGE!”
NEW JERSEY’S GIFT TO THE UNITED STATES:
You can spend billions on educating black and brown children, but if you don’t change who controls the money, you won’t get kids educated, you only get bankrupt taxpayers. If any of you think funding equity lawsuits make sense, study the sad history of New Jersey over the last 30 years.
SO WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
No surprise here, it is parental school choice. I think everyone here understands school choice, so I won’t discuss it in detail, except for two points.
First, parental school choice is not one on a list of education reforms that can be treated like a menu, pick your reform du jour, and if it doesn’t work, try another one.
None of the reforms we hear so much about (whole school reform, smaller class size, teacher merit pay, standards, universal pre-k etc.) will have any lasting impact until the power relationship between the school and the parents/students is changed. The parents must have the power to vote with their feet and take the cash with them. Only then will the public school monopoly be broken up and children become the focus of the system. PARENTAL SCHOOL CHOICE IS A NECESSARY PRECONDITION TO PUBLIC ECUCATION REFORM.
Second: If you don’t support parental school choice you are not a liberal. Parental school choice is the most liberal public policy position one can take. School choice is all about putting an asset of $5,000 or more per child per year in the hands of poor, disadvantaged parents. It’s better than Section 8 housing, food stamps, welfare, and health insurance. And the payoff to society of educating all our children is virtually immeasurable.
DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE NIGHTMARE MAKERS – THE OPPOSITION
The opposition is broad, powerful and sometimes unexpected, but they are not focused on children, only on power and money for themselves.
• Teacher’s Union;
• Educational Establishment;
• Traditional Democrats focused on party funding and workers;
• Republicans selling out to the union and education establishment;
• Suburbanites with racist fears;
• Minorities focused on their jobs, or who don’t send their children to urban public schools;
• Ultimately in NJ this isn’t about kids and education, but a fight over who controls $22 billion annually.
BUT DON’T DESPAIR AND REMEMBER IN THE WORDS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING:
“Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil; a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”
OUR STRATEGY FOR PLEASANT DREAMS
1) Be clear what OUR battle is about; it is not about:
o Public funding of religious education;
o Getting Republicans elected;
o Destroying the teacher’s union;
o Saving taxpayers money;
o Increasing patronage dollars;
2) This is about educating kids and specifically disadvantaged kids, mostly of color;
It is first, foremost, and last a civil rights struggle;
3) Pete’s Law Number # 1 – When we meet to discuss school reform, we only discuss school reform. We do not discuss any other issues, not the war in Iraq, tax policy, abortion, affirmative action, or any of the many issues that divide us. Our coalition, which is unique in America, including all races, all religions, and all political persuasions, holds together because everyone knows we are in a room together focused only on children, and no other issues. And now that we have these disparate folks working together, they find they have far more common ground than one would ever have thought.
4) We must implement parental school choice with Democrats, and they must be equal partners, and preferably the lead partner in our efforts. This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party;
5) We must provide a current service to poor parents; this is E3’s School Choice Now and the Center for Education Justice efforts;
o Ill-defined future benefits don’t build active minority support;
o The parent you help now is the parent who votes on your issue;
o School Choice Now canvassing is a major grass roots organizing activity;
o Alliance Strategy – create an organization of organizations
SO WHERE ARE WE TODAY?
• School choice is a legitimate and common conversation in NJ today;
• Look at the diverse members of E3’s board;
• There are school choice majorities in both houses of the legislature;
• Cory Booker has been elected major of Newark;
• School Choice impacted the Newark City Council elections, which now supports the Urban School Scholarship Act 9-0;
• The Camden educational disaster has been exposed;
• Our local legal efforts are producing consistent successes; our statewide class action lawsuit is progressing;
• Democratic legislators are making the connection between high property tax bills and the teacher’s union.
MARTIN LUTHER KING’S SPEECH IN AUGUST OF 1963
We all remember some or all of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” But what would Dr. King say today, 53 years after Brown verses the Board of Education? Here is what I think he would say:
First, a direct quote from Dr. King’s speech:
“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you my friends – so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
And now, what Dr. King might say today:
“I have a dream that one day the grandsons and daughters of slaves and slave owners can sit down in school together and learn how to participate in the American Dream;
I have a dream that one day even in the State of New Jersey; a state sweltering in the heat of educational apartheid, foundering on the shoals of educational bankruptcy, will be transformed into an oasis of equal educational opportunity and freedom;
I have a dream that all our children, whether brilliant or challenged, will have educational options that work for them, in schools that are safe, with teachers that love them, teachers that demand their students meet and exceed their capabilities; and work tirelessly to make sure their students succeed.
I have a dream that one day in NJ, with its entrenched special interests and bureaucratic indifference, our legislature will hear our children’s cries for help, and let our brown and black boys and girls go from a bad educational place to a better one.
SO, ARE MY DREAMS NIGHTMARES?
No, we in this movement are simply and clearly right. This is not an academic discussion of tax policy, immigration, or even foreign policy. We have the moral high ground, the facts and the civil rights of our children on our side. We will prevail against high odds, simply because we are right and we can not and will not fail.
So, my dreams are positive dreams; and they are clear as a bright sunny day:
I have a dream that we all will have the political will to put children first above all;
I have a dream of building our coalition so elected officials fear us more than the education monopoly;
I have a dream that the Democratic Party will go back to its principles of helping the disadvantaged above all;
I have a dream that my Republican brethren will remember their history of leadership on civil rights and never cave in to special interests;
I have a dream that taxpayers will finally get the educational performance they have been paying for all these years;
I have a dream that all our supporters of education reform will see the light at the end of the tunnel and fear not the inevitable setbacks, and will continue the fight side by side with us in NJ and across the country.
AND WHEN I AWAKE FROM MY DREAMS, I WILL FIND THOUSANDS AND MILLIONS OF OTHERS WITH THE SAME DREAMS; AND THEN ALL OF GOD’S CHILDREN – HISPANIC AND BLACK AND WHITE – JEWISH, MUSLIM, CATHOLIC AND PROTESTANT -- WILL BE ABLE TO JOIN HANDS AND SING IN THE WORDS OF THE OLD NEGRO SPIRITUAL -- “OUR CHILDREN ARE FREE AT LAST! ARE CHILDREN ARE FREE AT LAST! THANK GOD ALMIGHTY, THEY ARE FREE AT LAST!"