The wages of Common Core — and a message for Townsend/Trump and Townsend/Hillary voters

Common Core, teacher abuse, and broken standardized testing elected Donald Trump. They elected Billy Townsend, too.

I believe nothing mattered more to the entire presidential campaign than Donald Trump’s brutal primary defeat of Jeb Bush using Common Core. And nothing mattered more to mine. I also believe that if Florida had pursued Finland’s humane and caring model of education two decades ago, rather than Jeb Bush’s toxic stress-based education system, we would not have a Trump presidency. I know I would never have run for Polk County School Board.

Why do I think this?

Most people come in regular contact with the government establishment either through Medicare, Social Security, or public education. Trump’s elderly base benefits from and is very happy with the first two. They ease the toxic stress of life. That’s why that form of Big Government will not be touched for them. It will probably be taken away from me.

By contrast, public education in America — and especially Florida — is a toxic stress machine for the grandchildren of Trump voters. And it’s especially toxic for the Democratic party’s base of young people and their parents in traditional zoned schools. They experience the reality of Common Core/test-and-punish/teacher shortages every day. And we wonder why they’re not more enthusiastic about technocratic government. Even when we tell them to clap louder because the other guy is scary.

Yet, no one that I’ve seen in the shell-shocked American commentariat is talking about Common Core/Education “Reform’s” role in all this. That’s a perfect encapsulation of the American leadership class’ general cluelessness about life on the ground in America. It also reflects the obvious fact that virtually no one in that leadership class has a child in a traditional zoned public school.

During my campaign, I talked to thousands and thousands of people all over this massive, reddish I-4 county.

I heard this kind of thing over and over again.

“My daughter keeps failing math; and I don’t know how to help her. And the teachers don’t have any time to give her extra help.”

A desperate father and Trump voter said this to me outside an early-voting precinct in the gathering darkness of a Friday night. He was watching his daughter’s crack at a middle class life end as a pre-adolescent; and he felt powerless to stop it. He hated this feeling. And this feeling had a name: Common Core.

A metaphor for misery inflicted by the establishment

Common Core is a thing, conceived with good intentions. It’s a collection of standards that various states got together to mandate in order to further standardize education in the country. In math, particularly, this included some new methods of teaching and learning that have blown up into ill-trained confusion. It is now half-implemented in confusing, confounding ways within the massive public education curriculum-supplier graft factory.

More powerfully, Common Core as a phrase has become a metaphor for education based on rote, testing, punishment, fear, and segregation by race, class, and test scores. This is education where the consequences of falling behind in third grade or seventh grade are apocalyptic for a child’s life. Apocalyptic. At 8. Or 12.

I talked to and won thousands of Trump voters during this campaign. Above all things, the phrase “Common Core” defined their view of education and my race. That view did not hinge on the subtleties of specific standards or which level of government dictated them. It hinged on powerlessness and misery and forces beyond their control. And they are right to feel powerless, especially in Florida. Indeed, I have been listening to teachers and parents and kids and telling their stories for years. I was writing about the toxic Common Core experience long before it had an easily branded name.

Anyone who experiences public education in Florida knows that it is a giant, grinding machine that regularly humiliates teachers, parents, and students and makes them feel powerless. Especially in the traditional zoned schools that most kids still attend. But the test-and-punish/Common Core model is also a source of great pain in the charter and magnet schools marketed as escape routes.

And here’s the really important thing to understand.

Jeb Bush’s toxic stress public education model in Florida, which is an entirely Republican creation, set the bipartisan, elite consensus for public education in America for two decades. Thus, it made public education in America a giant, grinding toxic stress machine that regularly humiliates teachers, parents, and students and makes them feel powerless. It also gave us massive teacher shortages. No one wants to teach in the Establishment’s teacher-punishing, anti-human, toxic stress model.

Jeb Bush gave us fraudulent, stigmatizing school grades and high-stakes testing in 1998. George W. Bush gave us No Child Left Behind in 2001. Barack Obama gave us Race to the Top in 2008. Together, they all give us Common Core. And not one of them bothered to listen to the people they were torturing for their own good. To my knowledge, the national teacher shortage was not an issue at all in this presidential campaign. That’s astonishing. An unbelievable establishment failure.

I know, personally, through blood and long dear friendship, two people in the general “reform” community who worked very hard to thread the needle on test-and-punish to make it less punishing and more humane. But they were in the very small minority of the national educrat industrial complex. And they could not overcome the bad faith of too many of their “allies.” They’re both out of education now. I feel terrible for them today.

Thankfully, the toxic stress model has very recently (and too late) begun to change elsewhere in America — but not in Florida.

The Tallahassee establishment loves Common Core

Your Republican state establishment — Rick Scott and Kelli Stargel and Colleen Burton and Adam Putnam the whole crew — still inflicts Common Core on your kids and mine and their teachers. They don’t call it that. But trust me, the fraudulent school grade equations that change every year are Common Core. And this is Common Core:

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That equation is the so-called Value-Added Model used to punish Florida teachers. This is the bastard offspring of “liberal,” big government abstraction and “conservative” hatred of teachers and public benefit. It’s a teacher-shortage machine.

Gary Chartrand and Florida’s abusive Board of Education used this equation to forcibly transfer dozens of teachers at Polk County Schools after this school year had started. And then they insulted and mocked us for good measure. Those teachers were replaced by subs and first-year, completely inexperienced teachers, if they were replaced at all.

Parents were not asked if they liked this idea. The local community was not consulted. The Big Government Republican establishment in Tallahassee simply did it. And the local establishment, which is entirely a Republican establishment, sat by and let it happen. (I did not sit by. I exacted a consequence from Gary Chartrand and the BoE, small though it may have been.)

At Kathleen Middle, nine of 11 English teachers were removed by Tallahassee — against the principal’s will — after the school year started. This was at a school that had Polk’s fifth-best overall gain in test score performance in the prior year. There was no plan to replace these teachers. Kathleen Middle has a high percentage of children of color. It’s likely that their parents voted for Hillary in large numbers.

So you see how the anti-human aspects of America’s Common Core/Test-and-Punish system unite all sides in misery and powerlessness. Trump had a simple education message. Common Core is your government. And it has not helped you. He was right. Governments and establishments, as we have seen, ignore popular feelings of powerlessness and stress at their great peril.

A gut check for Trump/Townsend voters

Throughout this campaign, my fortunes and Trump’s were closely linked. You can make a good argument that we were the two most successful politicians in Florida on Tuesday.

I ran in the most expensive and intense local race in Polk County history. I ran openly and directly against the entire Florida education establishment. And I ran against most of my local county’s Republican political and business establishment. And I won big.

We’re a pretty remarkable odd couple. Indeed, during the campaign, multiple people told me how much I reminded them of Trump.

That’s because we both tell it like it is, right? You all know I’m not politically correct.

So I’m going to tell you a few things, Townsend/Trump voters. You know they are true. And you’re going to have to decide what to do next.

1) I will not fully succeed if you do not turn on the Republican establishment in Tallahassee with the same ferocity that you turned on Democratic establishment in Washington. Common Core reigns in Tallahassee. Period. I can and will make some localized progress on our culture and treatment of teachers and how we’re organized. But we cannot fully transform Polk County unless we burn down Tallahassee as it is now.

That doesn’t mean you have to vote Democratic or independent. It does mean you need to force Kelli Stargel and Colleen Burton and Adam Putnam — or someone else — to destroy and rebuild from scratch the awful Tallahassee model they’ve built. I can explain to you what’s necessary. But only you can decide to do it.

2) Florida DOES NOT believe in educational choice. My son is an 8th grader at a low income, very diverse, state-threatened middle school. And he’s having a good experience, despite the state’s efforts. He has maybe the best science teacher in the state. Yet I do not have the choice to guarantee she’s not removed if her VAM score isn’t good enough.

I do not have the choice of enrolling my son in a traditional school that follows Finland’s model of education. Or a private school model. Or a model not subject the Gary Chartrand’s bullying and VAM scores. I don’t have any choice over what Tallahassee decides to do to my son’s teachers as a whole. And if I don’t have choice, you don’t either.

3) My former opponent is an establishment Republican. He was endorsed by establishment Republicans like Adam Putnam. He aligned himself closely with Colleen Burton and Kelli Stargel. Together with other establishment Republicans like former Polk state attorney Jerry Hill, he attacked me limply on TV as a “liberal” and a “drug pusher” and generally a monster. That’s politics. No grudges. But it’s worth noting before it all disappears down the memory hole of unity and congratulations. I’m not a monster. And I won 60 percent of the vote because of it.

Moreover, if you’re reading this now, you’ve probably read me before. So I don’t think it will surprise anyone that I voted for Hillary. I’m actually an independent — no party affiliation. I voted against Trump primarily out of self-defense — and out of defense of the vulnerable in our society. I will always defend them. You have to decide if that’s a problem for you. But you also know, from experience, that I’ll defend you, too. We’re all vulnerable.

Again, I tell you all this because I am not politically correct. And you know I do not lie. You need to understand that America has elected a fundamentally abusive person to abuse its distant and malfunctioning institutions. He will likely abuse some number of its vulnerable people in the process. None of us know how all that will play out.

I used open-sourced writing on a cheap website to build the movement and loyalty that drove my campaign. If just-retired State Attorney Jerry Hill, the very embodiment of state power, was willing to paint me as a “drug pusher,” what do you think a person as abusive as Trump is willing to do with that state power? Jerry Hill and Hunt Berryman have some built-in human restraint. Trump does not. That’s his entire appeal.

There is absolutely nothing stopping Trump, if I were to catch his attention with this article, from shutting down lakelandlocal.com or Billytownsend.com. Or prosecuting me. Lock. Me. Up. Why wouldn’t he? He’s openly talked about doing this kind of thing to opponents or journalists on the campaign trail. He doesn’t respect the courts or other people’s rights. When you run against institutions and norms and win, well, why would you care about preserving institutions and norms? My best protection will be you — and my own unimportance.

The difference in how Trump and I inflict pain

I have a lot of experience hurting people with what I write and pursue.

I always try to punch upward, not down. I try never to do it lightly. And I think I only do it to people whose performance or bad faith make it imperative for me to do it. However, it still hurts people. And there are consequences for it. I always try to make myself feel the consequences. Anybody gets to yell at me when I hurt them. And I’m always, always, always open to reconciliation, not dominance. I want no permanent enemies. And if I’m wrong, which I sometimes am, I apologize. Without being asked.

In short, I accept the responsibility that comes with the power to hurt people. The pain is never the point. That is why many, many, many people with whom I had drop-down, drag-out battles over the years felt the need to tell me they were supporting and voting for me. They know I have always taken them seriously as fellow citizens. And they believe in my honesty and good faith. Winning their support is probably the most gratifying part of this entire campaign.

That’s the difference between me and Trump, I think.

For Trump, the pain and the dominance always seem to be the point. If we’re honest, I think the pain and dominance is the point for some portion of his voters. I don’t know what that portion is. I think it’s likely pretty small. But I watched that instinct to dominance play out in various places during the campaign — particularly through menacing chants and shouts at the Bartow Halloween parade, of all things. By contrast, I saw no evidence of menace at the actual voting sites, which was encouraging.

But this fact remains. We have elected to supreme power a man who openly bragged about committing sex crimes against young women. Multiple women came forward to corroborate what Trump said about himself. And he successfully dismissed it as “locker room” talk. Period.

That’s a bell we cannot unring. For an entire generation of idealistic young men and young women. Indeed, many of those same men and women went to our public schools the next morning, with that bell and “grab ’em by the pussy” still ringing in their ears, to engage and love the children of Trump voters.

I don’t know the consequences of that. But I have a hard time believing there will be none. And it’s incredibly telling and damning that former State Attorney Jerry Hill, who blew up the Lakeland Police Department with my help over sexual behavior that did not rise to the level that Trump bragged about, chose to come after me as the monster during this campaign.

Moving forward when there are no rules

I recently had an extremely encouraging conversation with a Trump voter, who also likely voted for my opponent. Again, I have no time for grudges.

Here’s his key passage:

I think the thing that I am just now beginning to understand is that there is a difference between how I felt when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won, and the way many, many people who opposed Trump feel today. I had no “fear” of Clinton or Obama. I also have no fear of Trump, native, straight white man that I am.

This person is genuinely interested in reassuring his fellow citizens and humans. If he embodies the typical Trump voter, we’ll likely get through this next four years fine. But I told him in response:

If and when you talk to people to reassure or comfort them, expect anger and hurt and consequences. Be big enough and strong to listen and absorb it and make their feeling part of you. I do try to do that. And I think it’s why people continue to listen to me.

Whatever you think of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the people who supported and worked and voted for them thought they were playing by the American rules. They acted in good faith. Do the work, win the votes, influence the direction of the country, negotiate productively with the opposition, appoint the Supreme Court, etc. That’s what they teach you in civics.

If we’re honest about the last eight years, we’ve learned that civics is crap. There are no rules in American politics but winning and losing. I had largely come to that conclusion on my own by studying American history closely. But the Obama and Trump administrations have rather confirmed it for many other people. There are only levers of power, how you get them, and what you do with them.

Realizing that with Tuesday night’s brutal abruptness stings. It stings really, really bad. For a lot of people, particularly young, idealistic, kind people, it may never stop stinging.

I saw U.S Congressman Dennis Ross at an event the other night. He called me out by name in a conciliatory way. I appreciate it. He called for unity, etc. I saw he did so again in a recent op-ed. But he made it pretty clear that the burden of unity falls on the defeated in his world. I think the burden of unity should fall on the powerful as well.

Indeed, Dennis Ross had ample opportunity to serve as a force for national unity and negotiate in good faith with Barack Obama. He chose not to. He was a Republican before he was an American or a Polk Countian. Period.

That’s what his party demanded of him to keep him as Congressman. That doesn’t make him a monster. It makes him more or less like everybody else. I think Dennis is a nice guy. But unity has not been his priority until now, when he has total power. Funny how that works.

In the process, he has taught an entire generation of idealistic, civic-minded, kind young people in Polk County the virtue of behaving like there are no rules but power. He taught them that good faith engagement with a political opponent is pretty useless. In Dennis’ world, total political war is a better choice. It works. I suspect the young people of Polk County and other places will take those lessons to heart. And Dennis may not like the consequences of that one day.

Likewise, when it comes to education in Florida, Kelli Stargel and Colleen Burton, and the entire Polk political establishment have been Republicans before Polk Countians. Stargel, particularly, has a record of working against her own school system and well-being of her own constituents. She was a major part of the state education legislative team that brought you everything you hate about Florida education. Believe me when I tell you this. I am not politically correct.

So what are you, Townsend/Trump voters, going to do about that?

I can tell you that I do not believe in total political war. I will meet with the local political establishment anytime, anywhere in public to work together toward restoring a humane educational experience. That could start this weekend if we decided to. But I will challenge that same establishment with every public tool I possess if they choose not to participate. I am tired of them hurting our kids and the people who serve them.

I looked a hell of a lot of Trump voters in the eye and told them their children mean everything to me as human beings. I meant it. I meant it then. I mean it now. I ask them something in return: do you mean it about other people’s kids? If you do, we can accomplish much together. But understand, many of your neighbors believe that’s an open question today. And they have reason to.

The party of the young needs our help

I believe our campaign has taught something very different than what Dennis Ross and Donald Trump have taught to the young, idealistic people of Polk County. In fact, I know it, because a number of them got involved. And they were a huge help.

In retrospect, I am quite grateful that the Polk Republican establishment decided to come after me over my deeply informed and humane prohibition policy positions.

Informed and humane prohibition policies will be a cornerstone of the political movement that eventually emerges to represent the young. A humane, forgiving, uplifting, experience-centered education system will be another. America’s neglect and open contempt for the life experience of the young is inexcusable. It must end.

Together, Trump/Townsend, Clinton/Townsend, Johnson/Townsend, and Stein/Townsend voters showed Polk County the power and political viability of a movement built to serve the humanity of the young. We also voted to tax ourselves for health care for Polk’s working poor. And to legalize medical marijuana. There were big victories here last week for humane approaches to each other.

Look at this map.

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Sixty percent of Polk County voters chose the least cynical campaign ever run in this place. We won in every community, among every race, class, and achievement level. Every precinct but one. That’s what a humane future can look like if we fight for it. And make no mistake, humanity has to be fought for one human at a time. It does not emerge from spreadsheet cells. I would love for Polk’s political and business establishment to join us.

But understand this, Polk’s political and business establishment has nothing I want — except an open mind. That includes re-election. I’ve already won one more election than ever I thought I would enter without their help. I don’t care about resume points. I’m 44-years-old living and serving in the era of Donald Trump’s supreme power. I want to do that honorably.

I think we have shown there is a viable alternative. We have shown each other it’s possible to hold the establishment and the powerful accountable while loving and protecting and serving our neighbors. That’s my America. That’s my Polk County.

And that’s a Common Core worth celebrating.

4 comments

  1. Jeffrey D Goff

    Thanks, Billy, for giving such a strong, powerful voice to our concerns!

  2. George A. Avant Jr.

    Amen. I’m certainly open to defeating the Republican Establishment here in Florida. An excellent article where you’re right on all counts.

  3. Chris McLaughlin

    Billy, congratulations on your win and thanks for your extensive commentary on Common Core and I agree its become a plague on our students. I noticed that Lee County had opted out of Common Core, then reserved its decision, and then was criticized by Bush and others that they had a gazillion tests at the Lee County level that could haven been eliminated. Without ignoring the obvious problems with Common Core / Florida Standards, aren’t there tests that we could immediately eliminate in Polk County that serve little to no purpose?

  4. Pamela Pellicer Garris

    Billy,congratulations for a campaign that truly sought to serve the youth and future of Florida. As a former teacher and substitute in the system, I fully understand the flaws in the current system. They started in Tallahassee ,and they must end there! Keep fighting the good fight! Your next campaign should be for state office.