The Ugly Truth About the New Jersey Student Walkout: No Sense, No Debate

The scene depicted at the right is an old one, but a segment of New Jersey’s student population wants you to think that it’s from April, 2010 – and that Governor Chris Christie is wielding the hose.

Today, students in New Jersey public schools walked out of class to protest budget cuts:

Civil Rights Protest, Hose

Thousands of New Jersey high school students walked out of class Tuesday to protest budget cuts, a statewide event organized through text messages and social networking websites.

The anatomy of a protest was on full display at Englewood’s Dwight Morrow High School. It started with a small group of students who tested the waters Tuesday morning.

“Education should always be the first priority,” said junior Amber Diaz.

I’d argue that insisting on reform, which includes the defeat of bloated, unsustainable fiscal plans and the failing systems that perpetuate them, isn’t making education a lesser priority, but that argument tends to get lost when the NJEA and “for the children!” are on the other side.

What’s remarkable here is the truth behind this walkout: that not only was it misguided, but that its supporters – including the event’s organizer Michelle Ryan Lauto – aren’t all that interested in figuring out any real solutions to New Jersey’s education problems.

Derrell Bradford, Executive Director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) is an education reform warrior. I’m no shrinking violet, but he’s the best. If I had a child and could choose one person on the national education scene to advocate for him, I’d choose Bradford. He live-Tweeted the walkout in Newark with some salient observations:

– Students in Newark protesting budget cuts…not the terrible caliber of education they receive. Let’s get our eye on the ball folks.

– @ByronArnao Better than my view. Newark has 9 of the worst high schools in NJ. I wonder which one these kids go to

– Newark student walkout just rolled past my window. Appx 40% of kids here fail exit exam…in one of America’s most expensive districts.

– Newark students protest budget cuts. Newark pays less than 10% of its school costs and has 20% of the state’s worst schools.

– Wonder if more seat time would be preferable to rallying for schools that are draining the life from our kids. Stop defending failure.

I agree with Bradford; the walkout misses the point. The protest doesn’t take into account that there are reforms that result in responsible budgeting and, believe it or not, better educational outcomes for students. One could also assume that eliminating instructional time – especially in Newark, which does an abysmal job of educating too many of its youth in even the most fundamental areas – doesn’t help achievement. Eventually Bradford got on with his day:

– At a school in Jersey City with kids learning, and not protesting. Imagine that. #edreform #njea

Amen, brother.

I took the policy discussion to Twitter myself; I was told by one New Jersey teacher that the walkout was a ‘good way to learn about the 60′s’ and by an NJ administrator that it was an ‘authentic edu experience.’

Reasons #13,984 and #13,985 why I didn’t go to ed school, but I digress.

So what of the protest’s organizer, Michelle Ryan Lauto, and her commitment to finding the best solution to a difficult problem? Mashable tells us how it went down:

“According to students who took part in the protest, it was largely organized via social networking efforts — texts, MySpace and, of course, the original Facebook Event. Lauto has been tweeting about the walkout all day, expressing her joy at the turnout and excitement about the barrage of interview requests she has received from the media. In fact, we’re currently waiting on comment from Lauto, who — last she e-mailed us — was preparing to meet a camera crew at her house.”

May God bless Lauto; the media already has.

Surely a graduate of an NJ public school, and now a college freshman, with the initiative to create a massive Facebook campaign resulting in the removal of thousands of students from class would be interested in open, intellectually honest debate about education – and her Tweets proved it:

– LONG day. I am so proud of everyone. All you courageous protesters show so much promise and hope for the future. Always speak your mind.

I disagree with Michelle’s protest, but I’m on board with “Always speak your mind.” We need to discuss solutions to New Jersey’s problems now more than ever, and there are quite a few problems and solutions to consider in this mess. I Tweeted her:

– @Michelle_Ryan  Since you’ve Tweeted “Always speak your mind,” I will – the NJ student walkout you organized was disgraceful. #njea #edreform

And that’s when this darling of political discourse – of civil disobedience, of courage, of ‘fight the power’ no matter how illogical or misguided – showed how committed she was to open debate:

Yipes. She’s learned a lot about political advocacy in less than a year at Pace; only engage on your terms, and if it doesn’t follow your narrative, shut’em up. Or run for the hills, whatever.

Such is the intellectual depth behind her protest – that standard youthful mantra, ‘I believe what I want to believe, I won’t be bothered by any arguments against it, and gosh-darnit, we’re entitled to whatever we want, NOW!’

Now, of course, Michelle is famous – a budding Alinskyite [actually, as an article said, an actress] who’s shown Governor Chris Christie the power of New Jersey’s youth. She gushed all day about interviews with CBS, the New York Times, CBS Radio, NJN, Associated Press… she’s a pro.

I’d paste those messages, but our darling Michelle has gone from blocking me to blocking everyone – she’s protected her Tweets. Sorry, folks!

Is she interested in any real dialogue about education reform in New Jersey? Not a chance. If your narrative doesn’t match hers, she doesn’t want any part of it. Something tells me a few thousand kids in New Jersey shared that philosophy today – and that the NJEA loved every minute of it.

After all, these are the same folks who think that New Jersey is about to be ruled by the next Pol Pot, that “A–hole” is spelled “C-H-R-I-S-T-I-E” and that you should “never trust a fat f—.”

They also just used thousands of New Jersey schoolkids, whether Michelle Ryan Lauto and her teenage hordes realize it or not.

9 Responses to “The Ugly Truth About the New Jersey Student Walkout: No Sense, No Debate”

  1. Excellent post. It’s disappointing to think that she used the situation, an issue so many of us REALLY care about, just to get her 15 minutes of fame.

  2. Kelly,

    Thanks – I’m glad you like the post. I didn’t get the sense that she was chiefly concerned with getting herself on the map. I believe she, and almost everyone arguing on both sides of education issues, sincerely believes in what’s being said and done. It’s a case study in using social media to fuel a quick, passionate action in a sector that doesn’t often see it *and* among 18 and unders, so hearing her perspective on the event’s planning and organization is valuable for everyone.

    Having said that, we need to take a hard look at the role a protest like this plays in the education debate. We didn’t see an example of a problem – funding in NJ – explained in full with potential solutions fleshed out and a comparison/weighting of those solutions. Oddly enough, this education protest had no education of its own.

    Instead, we saw hordes of students arguing for entitlement without considering any of its causes or effects. If that’s what NJ teachers have been instilling in students – no thoughtful debate, no consideration, no dialogue – then the problem is much bigger than this protest, or even this funding crisis.

  3. As always you have an interesting and thought provoking post. I agree with your assessment of the situation, but I think the students’ position is indicative in societies perception of education in general. While politicians, both nationally and locally, talk about funding/not funding education teachers are assigning students busy work and states are requiring schools to solve every social problem (real or perceived) they can think of.

    While I would have preferred hearing the students demand a better education, I can’t fault them completely for their lack of understanding of the issues. They only know what they are taught.

  4. “I can’t fault them completely for their lack of understanding of the issues. They only know what they are taught.”

    I agree completely – what a powerful point. That’s why I feel it’s appropriate to indict the NJEA, school districts, etc. here. Their inaction – sometimes willful – and utter failure is what leads to a situation like this.

    That’s why I like touting great schools, from BASIS Tucson to successful elementary schools in Upstate NY and elsewhere. We can look at them and say, “Look what this school accomplishes and how much it costs – why aren’t you doing that?”

    I’d love to show the NJ schoolkids some of these great models, then have them listen to taxpayers who are losing homes, forced to move, etc. and then see if they’d still cut school to argue for their civil right to play junior varsity field hockey.

  5. It’s difficult to judge the situation. But two things are evident: it’s more and more difficult to control schoolchildren, and second they’re getting more and policy and economics-oriented. But why should they promote their views during their classes is a more important question.

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