The Dream Deferred

Tens of millions of Americans turned out to vote for a New New Deal in 2008. We turned out to vote against the nefarious budget-slashing of Mitt Romney in 2012. And what did we get?
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"Or does it explode?" -- Langston Hughes

I woke up mad today. I woke up mad today because yesterday I received a manila envelope from the federal Department of Education that spelled out in cold, hard numbers how the recent budget cuts, enacted by Congress and signed by the president, would affect my Upward Bound students who live in the poorest city in Massachusetts. I woke up mad today because when it comes to education policy, there is little daylight between a national Democrat and a national Republican. Dismantling civil-rights era social programs and replacing them with market-based reforms is what truly brings President Obama and the Republicans together.

You can blame only the Republicans for sequestration -- fine. I won't even bother to argue that point. But think about how Obama and his cabinet members are allocating money within their departments. In the Department of Education, Obama's dominant policy engine is Race to the Top, which aims to implement standards across state lines with financial incentives. I won't even bother to argue why a financially-driven education system could create perverse incentives for administrators and teachers.

What I will argue is this: a Democratic administration is deliberately funneling funds away from direct services to poor people and towards administrators and consultants and bureaucrats. Race to the Top pays some pretty good grant-funded salaries to curriculum writers in Central Offices. It puts on a good conference (I've been to one). What it doesn't do is teach kids, or shelter them in safe homes, or feed them healthy food.

My Upward Bound program, created as part of President Johnson's Great Society of the 1960s, will lose over $17,000 and four students out of our seventy-three. Small potatoes, right? Maybe. But take one small federal grant, then multiply that by 826 -- the number of other Upward Bound programs currently funded (not counting the ones that the Obama administration defunded before the sequester). Then you've got thousands of students from low-performing urban and rural schools no longer able to take courses at colleges over the summer, no longer able to receive after-school tutoring, no longer able to receive preparation the SAT. That's thousands of high school students who are less likely to go on to college and escape poverty. And even if you still think a few thousand children are small potatoes, think about all of the other potatoes in the funding sack, and all of the children who will both intellectually and physically starve.

Tens of millions of Americans turned out to vote for a New New Deal in 2008. We turned out to vote against the nefarious budget-slashing of Mitt Romney in 2012. And what did we get?

We still got a conservative. Not only that -- in education policy, we got a more conservative Republican than George W. Bush. After all, Bush was the one running around with Teddy Kennedy talking about No Child Left Behind, a deeply-flawed but promising start to fixing our education system. Obama, instead of modifying No Child Left Behind and making it more equitable, gave out waivers and then implemented his cash-driven program aimed not at children and teachers in the classroom, but at administrators and consultants and template designers. Districts participating in the program are buried in lesson plan templates, designed to remove the "professional" from the teaching profession and to centralize power among many who have never set foot in a classroom.

I also woke up mad today because I read Obama's patronizing Morehouse College commencement speech, where he takes on his role as the Scold of Black Folk. He throws in his usual talking points about "strengthening the middle class," as if to say, "Trust me, I'm not a president for the poor." And then he repeats that charter-school refrain, "No excuses."

When you tell African-American college graduates not to make excuses based on their upbringing, you are telling them that a social critique of poverty is not legitimate. You are sending the message that poverty and unemployment are self-inflicted personal failings. Don't bring up the fact that your brother is in jail while you're interning at a big law firm. Nobody wants to hear that.

And isn't that the lesson Obama learned himself? Be an Eisenhower Republican, not a Roosevelt Democrat. Play by the elite's rules to succeed. And most of all, don't make people with money and power uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable to talk about social inequity. It's uncomfortable to talk about how important welfare is to children and to adults who are working full-time. It's uncomfortable to talk about the long-term unemployed.

I woke up mad today because other people who elected this president are not mad. The Tea Party can get grandpa out of his wheelchair to protest an IRS audit, but Democrats can't even be bothered to put political pressure on the president to be a voice for the voiceless. We accept surrender and buy all of the White House's excuses about Republican obstructionism.

I woke up mad today because Langston Hughes asked us a question. He asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?" I wish it would explode. Right now it's just sagging under a heavy load. Because the dream deferred doesn't explode for children living in poverty today -- it evaporates. It evaporates with every line item slash, every concession, every reallocation of funding that slips by without protest, without political consequences.

Recently, I had to make a series of frustrating phone calls on behalf of a student who was incorrectly un-enrolled from her nursing program. The fault was not hers. She came into my office crying. I told her, "Don't be sad; get mad. They messed up. They're not bad people, but they're not going to hear you until you make some noise."

It's time to get to mad. It's time to make noise. It's time to stop letting the president blame Republicans for his shortcomings. He should take responsibility for the damage he's done to our neediest children, damage done even before the sequester. His funding priorities are skewed towards conservative education reforms that are to the right of Bush.

And we can't wait until the next budget battle, or the next year, or the next president. Because you don't get a second chance to raise a child.

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