Transcript of Supt. John Kuhn’s Speech from Save Texas Schools Rally 2017

(To watch the video of this speech, go to the 34:08 mark of the rally video on Save Texas Schools Facebook page).

I’ve come here today to talk about a promise: Texas’s public education promise. There is a public school, funded by and accountable to the people, a school required to admit and educate every child, no matter where they live, anywhere you go in this state. There isn’t a square inch of the state that doesn’t fall inside some school district or another. There isn’t a student who can’t walk into their local school and demand an education. No matter their race. No matter their nationality. No matter their disability. This is no accident. This is by design. This is promised to us in our state constitution, which says that a general diffusion of knowledge is essential—ESSENTIAL—for the preservation of our liberty and the rights of the people. Our ability to survive as a state, to not fall into the clutches of tyrants and charlatans, our ability to protect our own freedom from the schemes of conmen and dictators hinges on the education of every Texas child, funded by the public treasury and open to all Texas children, as was guaranteed long ago.


But that promise is under siege, and the siege is relentless.


A concentrated effort to shatter that promise under the dishonest guise of reform has become a mainstream movement, supported by America’s richest individuals and corporations, by the foundations and think tanks they financially support, and by influential politicians from both parties, whom the billionaires also financially sponsor. Other than educators like you and me and advocates including parents and pastors and school board members who are standing up for public education across the nation, there really isn’t much standing between us and a tomorrowdominated by schools that educate the kids they want to educate and leave the public school system, the greatest and most noble and democratizing public trust we ever devised, drained of its strongest students, drained of funding, drained of vitality, a shell of what it once was. The public school building, more than any other structure in America, is where the people bring democracy to life. It is where the wealth of the nation is translated into action that serves the greater good, action that constructs the nation’s future by making strong boys and girls who are equipped to be free and thoughtful citizens, not just career-ready or college-ready, but life-ready and capable of self-government, wise enough and critical enough that they won’t fall for tyranny in any form.


The public school system reveals the American heart. This system is us, all of us, in action–and I don’t mean “us” as teachers, but “us” as a people, “us” as a state, as voters and citizens, charged with investing in and maintaining schools for all kids, charged with sharing our state’s wealth with one another, even spending our treasury on the edification of children who don’t look like our kids, who don’t talk like us or worship like us, and we do this because we know that a house divided can’t stand. If Texas is to survive, public education must thrive. Public education is made of and by and for the public, it can never be any better or worse than we are. If our schools are sick, it’s because our society is sick. And if our schools are well, then we are doing something right.


The people made an educational promise when they framed our state constitution. That promise matters. We have to be brave enough to keep and defend that promise. We’re being told to give up on public schools; we’re being urged to turn instead to free markets and corporations to deliver education.


But free market schools are under no obligation to serve all children, and voucher schools don’t serve all children. Competition doesn’t breed excellence. If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around. Competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting. It breeds the desperate search for any and all competitive advantages. This ethic is toxic to the collaborative nature of education. Just look at the for-profit colleges getting closed down for perpetrating scams on our veterans, giving them worthless educations in exchange for their GI Bill dollars. For-profit K-12 education nationwide is already showing these same predatory tendencies. Competition-based school reform will never live up to the mythology that says all schools will rise as they compete for kids. It’s a lie. From Chile to Sweden, vouchers have failed to deliver equity or excellence.


When confronted about the fact that his charter school wouldn’t accept students with special needs, one school reformer said, “Some kids just aren’t the right fit.” I repudiate that notion with every fiber of my being.Every last kid in America–black, white, brown, or purple, kids who are learning English, kids who don’t speak at all, kids who can’t walk or need help in the bathroom, kids who have been abused, kids who have been loved, kids who love math and science and kids who love art and playing the trombone, kids who want to be welders and kids who love baseball, kids who just want a friend, kids who are lost and afraid, kids who need love–every last one of them is the right fit in Texas public schools. These are our children. They are the best kids we have. How dare anyone keep them out of their schools, how dare anyone cull them like refuse or shake them out like dust particles from a rug! How dare the powers that be in our state lift up a model of schooling that permits schools funded with taxpayer dollars to exclude any kid who needs and wants an education, how dare they possess the temerity to call these exclusionary principles a civil rights issue.


A system of selective and exclusionary schools is not what we are promised in our constitution. It is a lesser promise, but I do not believe that we are a lesser people with lesser ideals. In fact, here is the ideal at the center of the public school movement: we will not exclude children. Public schools are a beacon for all children. Send us your poor, your homeless, your special needs children. Our doors are open to them. Voucher schools are the gated community of the education world, but public schools are what democracy looks like.


And I’ll tell you, public school teacher, because you do not discriminate, because you do not pick through the kids when they enroll, you will be graded as Cs and Ds and Fs. You’ll be punished by the people who make laws in the building behind me because they don’t understand that you, unlike the voucher school operators, you have the audacity to take up the hurting children of Texas—the children of abuse, the children of the opioid epidemic, the children of family dysfunction, the children of hunger and want—because you have the temerity to take them into your arms and your classrooms and you accept the knowledge that when you fail to make them shine like the children of privilege in private schools with a $30,000 annual tuition, you will be deemed unacceptable. You will be stamped with Cs and Ds and Fs. But you’re okay with that, because you didn’t go into education to compete and win. You went into education to collaborate and serve. You want your kids to win, to be successful adults, and that means you understand something our legislators can’t get through their thick skulls—you take the kids where they are, and you work with them from there. And though the progress is slow, and you may not get them there in one year, you push forward. You take them and make them smarter and better and more whole than you found them. Ignore the people in this building when they wag their fingers at you. You know that they wouldn’t last a semester in your classroom. You know that they’ve never taken a non-English speaker and gotten them to read at level 18 on their Diagnostic Reading Assessment by the end of the year, and you know that their systems won’t ever see that you accomplished that.


And so you should wear that letter grade with honor. Take that letter grade and be proud; it means you have the courage to toil on the front lines of want and need and poverty and pain in our state, you have the courage to go where our legislators fear to tread, you have the guts to dare dangerous things, to take up children that are forgotten in these marble halls, children that these senators and legislators won’t even provide health care for, children that these legislators allow to go hungry. Take the children broken by poverty and bind their wounds and prop them up and help them learn to run, and when they shame you because that bird with the broken wing won’t heal fast enough or fly high enough, remember this: A C is for courage. A D is for dignity. And an F is for faith, because you trust God to see you through the slings and arrows of these clueless elected officials as you teach the kids of this state that voucher schools will refuse.


And when it comes to the A-F rating system, I promise you this. The governor and lieutenant governor and senators are saying A-F is here to stay. But I’m here to tell you that this too shall pass. It’s a fad. It will go the way of TABS and TEAMS and TAAS and TAKS and 15 end-of-course tests and mandatory steroid testing and bus evacuation drills and the TECAT. Michigan just dropped its A-F system. Alabama dropped its A-F system. Government officials have to learn the hard way that people don’t fall for it when they fund schools at vastly different dollar amounts and fill schools with populations of kids from vastly different socioeconomic circumstances and then rate them publicly as if they’re comparing apples to apples. People are too smart to lend credence to such a ruse. Ten years from now, Texas legislators will have moved on to the next edu-fad and we’ll all laugh at the A-F folly.


Teachers and students have suffered for years under the burden of increasingly onerous education policies, a prevailing culture of teacher-bashing, and a relentless campaign to reduce resources while increasing expectations. We must remind ourselves that we have the power to determine the future of education in Texas. When educators and their allies are empowered, reform doesn’t happen to them, it happens because of them.


Thank you.

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