Democratic Mayoral Candidate DeRay McKesson tells The Real News he will defend teacher unionism and support keeping charter schools under public control
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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: I’m Jaisal Noor with the Real News Network. We have a very special guest today in studio. I’m here with DeRay Mckesson. He’s most famous for his role in Black Lives Matter and his entry into the mayoral run in Baltimore. But what some might not know about him is his experience and knowledge in public education. He’s a former Teach For America corps member, he taught in New York City public schools in East New York, I believe, and he was an administrator with Minneapolis Public Schools before joining the Ferguson protests. Thanks so much for joining us. DERAY MCKESSON: It’s good to be here, thank you. NOOR: So public education is in crisis in America, and especially for urban education. And that’s an historical problem. You can’t separate that from history, you can’t separate that from race. You can’t separate that from community control, which is what suburban school districts have, white school districts have, but urban school districts don’t have that. For the last two decades, the city of Baltimore has not had control of its public schools. And you know, we’ve been going through your, your 26-page plan, and you have a whole range of things you wanted to transform in public education. Assert more control through the city. Talk about what your vision is. This is one of the most important, yet least talked about issues, in society and in Baltimore today. MCKESSON: Yes. Like you said, I was a teacher, I was the number two [human capital] here for Baltimore City Public Schools and in Minneapolis Public Schools. My work has been devoted to issues of children, youth, and families for so long. And then Mike Brown got killed. And it was, even this thing about you have to be allowed to learn, right, which is why I started to do the work around activism. NOOR: And he was 18 years old, so–. MCKESSON: Yes. NOOR: He was just a few, he was basically just had finished the public school system. MCKESSON: He’ll never have a college professor. Aiyana Jones will never have a high school teacher. Tamir Rice will never have a high school teacher. That matters to me. When I think about Baltimore and issues of equity, you know, there are four institutions that the mayor’s office doesn’t manage. Buses, the jail, the community college, or schools. And for us to have a strategy around how to make the city better, at some point we’ll have to change our relationship with those institutions. But the school system, I’m mindful of the fact that it’s a billion-dollar organization with 12,000 staff. The city of Baltimore itself is only a $3 billion organization with 14,000 staff. It’s a massive operation to subsume–you know, what I’m proposing is to have a conference of strategy around literacy in a way that we’ve never had in this city. Especially adult literacy. You think about what does it mean that 40 percent of the adults in the city can’t functionally read, that means something. NOOR: This is, this is the city that reads. Most people might have forgotten that, but that is the, that is the slogan written on all of the benches around the city. MCKESSON: Yeah, yeah. And we, what we know is that it’s not true. So we think about what does it mean to make sure that people have the skills to enter the next generation of their jobs, or to make sure people can actually be in professions that have a ladder, a career ladder. Not being able to read is a huge barrier. We have to figure that out at the adult level, and also at the child level. And then what does it mean to think about wraparounds? We do home visits, 0-3 Headstart, making sure that kids are in Headstart. NOOR: And so for people that know about, that don’t know about this, this is an idea that I–I know you’re familiar with Harlem Children’s Zone–. MCKESSON: Yeah, yeah. NOOR: But it’s the idea that you’re not just a student when you enter the classroom. You’re going to come to your home, and you’re going to provide all the services and–I mean, basically, it’s like society–you’re saying, kind of acknowledging the fact that society is crumbling around these students. So let’s step up and kind of provide these roles to, basically to even the playing field, right? MCKESSON: And we can turn supports for kids at conception. And that’s what the Children Zone pioneer with baby college. I used to help lead the largest community center in the Harlem Children’s Zone. We had 500 kids a day, 1,400 families a cycle. And the model works, and we can do it here at 0-3 with Headstart, 4-5 pre-K. You know, people talk about expanding pre-K. Pre-K, 80 percent of the kids who are eligible already go. So it’s really like there’s a thousand-kid gap, right, of kids who aren’t getting services who should be, and we can fix that. NOOR: And that’s a key issue for working-class people, for black people in this city. You go to the suburbs and people have time to spend at home, they have, they have a bigger family structure that’s around to, you know, help, be around their kids, be able to teach them how to read, and just spend time with them. So these are services that working-class people are not getting. They’re being denied. MCKESSON: And they could, right. In this city there’s never–it’s not so much a lack of resources or a lack of money. It is wholly a lack of strategy and a lack of planning. And we can actually do this work in a way that’s coordinated, where they got home visits. You know, if we do home visits in a coordinated way, that can get us to testing for lead early, it can help us make sure people apply for the right tax credits, and it can also get us to make sure kids have libraries at home. We can actually do that in a structured way, but it takes a strategy. NOOR: And so we talked about the Harlem Children’s Zone a little bit, and that is a charter school. And the whole idea of charter schools was to provide space for innovation and creativity, and now there’s, that was, like, some two decades ago. But now there’s a bigger debate around it nationally. In Maryland–Maryland’s, and Baltimore, is unique in a lot of ways because the charter school system is within the public school system. MCKESSON: Correct. NOOR: And so there, it was a bill proposed last year about what to, what to do with the charter schools in Maryland. The charter school operators have been critical of this system. So what is, what is your vision of how a charter school should function in Maryland? Should they stay within the public school system, which is a radical departure from the national model. MCKESSON: I think that at its core charter schools are this idea that if we lower constraints it allows for increased innovation that should also lead to increased results. I think that’s the content. I think the way that it’s operationalized here in Maryland makes sense to me, that members are–teachers are members of the union, that there’s a close relationship between the school and the district. I think that makes sense to me, and I think that this could actually be a model for the way the districts work across the country. Here, again, there’s a lack of strategy around education, both at the district level and city-wide. And we can continue to refine the way that we fund public schools, whether they’re traditional public schools or charter schools. NOOR: And so there is this debate happening in Maryland. Do you think any changes should be made to the model that right now, it, it really constrains the national chains, which aren’t coming in here, incoming to Maryland. MCKESSON: Yeah, I think that if there’s any change we need to figure out the funding formula for everybody. It’s not what it should be, and that’s a, there’s public consensus around that. Again, I think that the way that charter schools are functioning now makes sense to me. I think that with everybody being a member of the union makes sense, with the close relationship. The tension that is here now is about funding. It is not necessarily about the philosophical approach to schooling. NOOR: And talk more about the role of unions, because you are a former chapter leader in New York City with the UFT. Why do you think that’s important today? There is, there are a lot of groups that aren’t, you know, there aren’t, they don’t favor teachers’ unions. And a lot of parents, especially in some black communities that say, you know, they’re just protecting bad teachers. How do you respond to that? MCKESSON: Teachers are the, teachers are the lifeblood of the institution of schools, and that’s really important that we honor that. I mean, as a, as a chapter leader and as a union member it was important we got together and said, here’s what we think schools should be for us as adults, and using that lens to fight for kids in, in any way that we could. I think that matters, especially with large groups of employees, to make sure that people aren’t taken advantage of. And I’ve seen that work in New York, I’ve seen that work in Baltimore, I’ve seen that work in Minneapolis as being important. It is important, though, that we continue to push unions to think really thoughtfully about innovation. So how do we measure student success, how do we measure teacher effectiveness, how do we talk about those things that are really tough, and make sure the union is leading and pushing districts to do that work? NOOR: So that is another, like, kind of hot button topic. I’m a former educator myself. I worked in New York for a few years. And the issue of accountability and how to measure that, and whether that’s hurting education, that is actually a super important issue for, for educators. So some, some like I mentioned, some feel, some parents feel that you’re just protecting bad teachers without accountability. But some teachers and parents feel that by emphasizing testing you’re taking away from education. And I kind of had that experience, being an educator. I was a history educator in New York, and I would go to fourth grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade. I taught remedial classes in college, and kids didn’t know the basics of the American Revolution. But–and I asked them, you know, I asked them why. I talked to their teachers, and they would say, well, they’re focusing on math and English scores. So how do you respond to that, that debate? How do you kind of fit into that? MCKESSON: The framing would be that City Hall doesn’t manage North Avenue. So my thoughts are thoughts that I believe are important, but again, [don’t manage] the school system. I think that, you know, there’s also broad consensus that there are multiple measures for student effectiveness. There’s no one thing that is more, necessarily the most important. So test scores aren’t part of it. There’s strong portfolio models across the country. With teachers we’ve seen teacher observations be important for pushing people to grow. I mean, acknowledging the growth that has happened. So where I stand is about multiple measures, making sure that we aren’t saying that standardized tests are the only way that we measure effectiveness, but that they can play a role. NOOR: And so, like, the portfolio schools I know in New York, which you’re familiar with, were actually a huge success or kind of a hidden secret. They didn’t like to talk about it, because they didn’t want scrutiny from the state. But the portfolio schools would take kids that dropped out, and take them off the standardized test, and give them feedback. They would give them more of a comprehensive approach to education. And instead of giving test scores, they’d have to present their final papers to a panel of experts. Which is a radical idea in public education, but–. MCKESSON: Yeah. And the question is how do we scale, how do we scale that, right? NOOR: Demonstrate your knowledge. Right, right. MCKESSON: So like, we’ve seen these pockets of innovation be really powerful for kids. There are some kids who–testing is the way that they, they perform really well in that space, right. And there’s some kids that do really well in the portfolio space. With the portfolios it’s a question of how do we scale that. And we’ve seen that innovation be powerful in schools across the country. NOOR: So wouldn’t that mean radically changing the funding formula, right. Like, get the kind of funding that private schools have or other, other schools have. MCKESSON: Yeah, we, that’s necessary. We know with the way that TIFs impact the funding formula here in the city, with the offsets for wealth, that we have to change the way that schools are funded if we’re going to get to equity, and again there’s broad consensus about that as well. NOOR: And I want to stay on the issue of charter schools for a few moments at least, because I think it is important for people to know, you know, your views and beliefs. So national, national chains like Success Academy, they haven’t come to Maryland. Do you, would you–I know you’ve just said that you want to keep the system the same, but would you work with the chains to kind of work a compromise that would allow them to come and give them innovation, give them freedom? Or do you want to, would you reject those kind of proposals? And–. MCKESSON: So it would be–it would be the school system working with them, which they mayor doesn’t manage. NOOR: Yeah. Right, of course, right. MCKESSON: But [KIP] is here. KIP is one of the largest charter school chains in the country, and they have a school here. They have two schools, now. I guess they, they’re split up. And they operate within these constraints and, and are able to work within them to do the work of making sure every kid has a great teacher and a great education every day. NOOR: And so another issue kind of related to, to that, is the role of wealthy philanthropists, what role they can play, and you know, a lot of people would say, like, yeah, that’s–I mean, I think everyone would say yeah, wealthy people, you’ve made your money off working-class people. Give something back. Right, that’s kind of an easy thing that everyone can agree on. But I guess critics might point to examples like what happened in Newark with Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation. He was on Oprah kind of celebrating this, and you had the mayor of New York, Cory Booker, and the governor all celebrating. Which is a great idea, like, public schools deserve tons of money. They deserve a chance to succeed as well as any school does. But that resulted in a lot of chaos, a lot of school closings. The opening of charter schools, and the closing of public schools, and a huge fight over what the future of public education would look like in Newark. I know in your proposal you talk about the role–a little bit about how, what role philanthropy can play in it. What are your thoughts on that? MCKESSON: Yeah, so the context of Baltimore is different in some of the cities that you named. In all big cities in America there’s a strong philanthropic community, and Baltimore is one of those cities, for sure. Again, like I said, it’s not here been a question of are there resources, are there great ideas. It’s wholly been a question of is there a strategy. And I think there’s a way for us to bring the philanthropic partners to the table and say, here are the things that we commit to doing in the next four or five years, and here’s how we’re going to align the resources to make sure that we get the impact that we think is important. And I think people have a role to play–I think what we’ve seen happen in this city is that without a mayor saying here the priorities, and sort of leading, leading the charge, you see people making up the priorities as they go, with the impact being minimal, or not being something that we can see as a pocket of innovation, and then scale up to have an impact that changes as many people’s lives as possible. NOOR: And for the people that aren’t going to vote for you, if you win, what, what’s your message to them? What can you promise them as mayor? MCKESSON: Yeah. So this is about making the city work for people across a host of things. Education, safety, and economics are the things that people think about the most. We also have to think about storm water runoff, and it’s destroying the bay. We have to think about the radical loss of [greentops], and we have to think about illiteracy. So trying to make sure that we have a strategy to cover every part of people’s lives is what my goal is and what my commitment will be. NOOR: DeRay Mckesson, thanks so much for joining us. MCKESSON: Thank you. NOOR: It was a pleasure. Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
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