“Books Not Bombs” Forum Explores Ongoing Struggles in Public Education

Peace Advocate November 2023

Image: Jobs with Peace Campaign Booklet

by Jonathan King

Throughout our nation’s history, access to a quality education has been a political battleground. This struggle continues today, both nationally and within Massachusetts. Though historically public schools were primarily financed through local property taxes, at present both state and federal governments make significant, though often unrecognized, contributions. However, the federal contribution has been limited, in part by the diversion of funds from civilian programs to the enormous US military budget, which in 2024 will amount to more than $884 billion.

In October, Mass. Peace Action brought leading advocates for public education together with peace activists in a forum “Books Not Bombs” to explore the continuing struggles for quality education and the constraints imposed on that goal by military spending. The forum represented an expansion of MAPA’s Peace Economy campaign, which had previously focused almost solely on health care, into the field of education.

The forum was introduced by State Rep. Carol Doherty (3rd Bristol District), a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). Doherty described the importance of federal funding in education. The Congressional education budget is deeply inadequate compared to the needs of programs such as Title I, Pell grants or NIH higher education support. This is primarily due to the draining of income tax dollars into the bloated Pentagon budget.

Max Page, current president of the 115,000-member MTA, described the union’s priorities for the coming year: “The most important [initiatives] are: building stronger locals across the Commonwealth; ending the high-stakes testing regime through a statewide ballot initiative; and getting the Thrive Act passed in the State Legislature,” he said. The MTA is also trying to reclaim access to higher education for the entire population by pressing for high-quality public colleges and universities that will leave students debt-free.

In addition, the union is fighting to build support for paraprofessionals in school systems, calling for living wages for Education Support Personnel. Another priority is to transform more schools into “community schools” that serve as hubs and provide services to parents and members of the community. Page also called for a statewide effort “to address student mental health” which he noted “has been a growing problem even before the pandemic.”

Kathy Greely, a longtime Cambridge teacher, reading coach, and author, presented a cogent critique of the use of MCAS tests in Massachusetts public schools. The test was introduced after the passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act by the State Board of Education, when it was led by right-wing educator John Silber. With the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school systems started testing students almost every year; in 2003, passing math and English tests became a requirement for high school graduation. “There was huge opposition to this test across the state,” Greeley said. “Parents and teachers’ unions were very upset that you would deny a student a high school diploma, which was extremely unfair and would have serious negative outcomes.”

All of these concerns have sadly proved true. In fact, the outcomes were even worse than projected, including drill-and-kill teaching to the test, narrowing of the curriculum, distorted school schedules, and less time to help students develop their curiosity, creativity and critical thinking skills. In Cambridge, additional multiple-choice tests were introduced to prepare students for the actual MCAS tests.

Young people who haven’t passed the MCAS are at increased risk of ending up incarcerated, Greeley said. She assessed that increased pressure on students is one of the major factors leading to increased mental health problems. She noted that the “history of standardized tests was tied to eugenicists who proposed such tests to sort those who would go to the front lines as cannon fodder, and those who become officers.”

Edith Bazile of Black Advocates for Excellent Education and Citizens for Public Schools, and President of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, candidly addressed the continuing opportunity gap between students of color and white students. She noted the long history of Blacks struggling to master reading and writing, including the slave states passing laws which made “reading while black” a crime. Desegregation led to Black students being sent into schools lacking Black teachers and educators. “I attended segregated schools and was told I wasn’t bright enough to get into college,” Bazile said. When I returned to my school as a teacher, Black students were still underserved. The 1993 Education Reform Act introduction of MCAS provided a further barrier, which would have blocked her career. Schools have not fully tackled the racism of low expectations, the harsh disciplinary treatment of minority students, inequitable school closings, and school districts still failing to hire and retain Black educators.

Andrew King, a board member of Citizens for Public Schools, reviewed the national efforts of right-wing political groups to control and limit curriculum. In Florida, these efforts have focused on curbing the teaching of Black history; in Texas, closing down school libraries; in other states, banning books from public libraries. “Right wing legislators have proposed over 500 bills limiting and criminalizing what is taught or read in our schools,” King said. This has led to teachers being threatened, losing their teaching licenses, or being dismissed. Another front in the struggle is the concerted campaign by groups such as Mothers for Educational Liberty to run right-wing candidates for local School Boards. These are all efforts to turn back the clock on the authentic teaching of our nation’s history, and to fog the struggles of oppressed minorities to fully participate in the governance of our society.

Jonathan King is co-chair of the Mass. Peace Action Board of Directors.