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Truthdigger of the Week: JoAnn Wypijewski

How far might those seeking to replace public schools with privately run institutions go to realize their dreams of eliminating democratic oversight of education?

The question arises while reading an article titled “Where Shame Is Policy,” written by independent journalist JoAnn Wypijewski and published in the May 19 print edition of The Nation. The report explores a practice in the Los Angeles public school system where school administrators “restructure” their institutions while hundreds of educators sit furloughed far away in district gulags, sometimes for years or more at a time. “The specter of sex,” alleged to be suspected between teachers and students, is the justification typically used to get the teachers away.

About 450 such teacher languish in sites around the city. The “housed,” as the district calls them, are “overwhelmingly … past 40. Disproportionately … black; disproportionately … LGBT.” And some “who spent more than a year in teacher jail before the district acknowledged there were no grounds, have actively opposed efforts to privatize their schools.” When they are not sent home on house arrest due to lack of space, they are sequestered “elbow to elbow facing a wall” in an empty floor in the district’s headquarters or vacant rooms, cubicles or auditoriums in a school somewhere in the city. Some are forbidden to read books, use the Internet, touch a phone or talk. Others may do some or all of these things.

Not all return to their old jobs upon release. During the forced absence of 76 employees of Miramonte Elementary School (everyone on staff but the principal) in 2010 after the arrest of a teacher on charges of lewd conduct, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy performed one of these restructurings, cutting staff by almost 50 percent. Most were interviewed by police investigating the scandal. All were cleared of suspicion.

“The assault on their identities,” Wypijewski writes, “the limbo of secret, open-ended investigation, have driven some older teachers out, retiring early and sacrificing lifetime benefits. Justifying the regime, Deasy recently told parents and others, ‘A teacher could be accused of drug trafficking, child molestation, prostitution, etc.’ Fear is a useful tool; under its cover, a profession is suspect, budgets balloon to pay disciplinary costs, and ‘education reformers’ are handed an opportunity.”

Wypijewski’s report is not conclusive, but the implication in it is that school district power may have become a tool for proponents of school privatization to suppress and dispatch their opponents. The long strategy is to weaken the effectiveness of teachers. Then, when public schools are unable to perform, present privatization as the only solution.

Already there are few to oppose the effort, as it comes after the strength of teachers unions has largely been destroyed, along with that of trade unions throughout the country. That the roundup is performed easily, with insufficient media attention, no protest from the larger public, and not a peep from politicians, may be a testament to how successful the 30-plus year effort to transform America’s democratically accountable public institutions into privately controlled, profit-making enterprises has been. That this process has reached education, society’s best means of enabling its members to think for and defend themselves, suggests it has entered something like its terminal stage.

“What’s happening in Los Angeles is not about reason as reasonable people understand it,” Wypijewski writes. “A Miramonte teacher who is back at work but anxious about using her name still feels the sting of her detention. She said of Deasy’s administration: ‘They want to dehumanize the profession as a whole, because if you can bring this profession down, if you can make people lose trust in this profession, then you can do anything.’ “

Wypijewski concludes: “This, writ large, is the legacy of moral panic: dehumanize anyone, and everyone is vulnerable.” For seizing a teachable moment, we honor JoAnn Wypijewski as our Truthdigger of the Week.

Alexander Reed Kelly
Former Associate Editor
In December 2010, Alex was arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House alongside Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, healthcare activist Margaret Flowers and…
Alexander Reed Kelly

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