The perils of thanking power, pt 2: it’s not savvy; it’s complicity and surrender to menace

Let’s be very clear about the function of the taxpayer-funded voucher program Gov. DeSantis and your Legislature are hellbent on creating: it feeds vulnerable children to grifters and abusers with your money and without any quality oversight at all. It does this by pillaging the tax money you provide to serve and educate children — including services for vulnerable and abused children — in existing public schools.

I laid this out in detail in this article. Please reread it if you doubt anything I’m saying here.

No one on your School Board really disagrees with my position or point-of-view on this. Indeed, my fellow Board Member Sarabeth Reynolds, who has spoken to many legislators, says state government essentially agrees with me about its own plan.

As evidence, please watch the three minute clip below from our last work session and our discussion about how to address the voucher expansion politically.

The context for our discussion is a bill that would, in theory, impose some after-the-fact penalties for voucher school operators that grift and abuse their kids. For instance, if you sexually abuse a child, as Pastor Tiger is accused of doing, you forfeit your right to run another voucher grift in the future. That’s a pretty low bar. Understand that these schools are already employing many people who can’t get hired at real schools for various reasons.

It’s also not clear who, personally, would have the responsibility for deciding someone is a bad actor or how that person would know. This is because no one is creating any kind of voucher oversight mechanism that can be held accountable by the public in the way a public school system is very publicly and confrontationally held accountable.

This clip has a couple of remarkable exchanges between me and Board Member Sarabeth Reynolds.

Reynolds: “After talking to representatives and senators, I think they are very concerned, particularly the “pop up” private schools — not necessarily Lakeland Christian and All Saints, that have been around for a long time. It’s the ones that are popping up in shopping centers and have six kids that are consistently popping up…”

Townsend: “They’re so concerned about it that they’re going to feed them tax money with no oversight at all.”

Reynolds: I’m telling you — that is, those are, when we bring that up, they just don’t realize they’re there. Every representative and senator that we talked to, other than I will say…Senator Stargel’s office is a little more aware. They’ve been pushing this bill. It’s actually in Senator Stargel’s committee today. But I think thats something they have on their radar.

[Sarabeth is echoing my position on established private schools like Lakeland Christian and All Saints. They’re not who we’re talking about here. And, because their parents pay for a very tailored, exclusive, and expensive type of education, I don’t expect vouchers to grow their enrollments at all. Established private schools don’t really want voucher kids.]

The title of my article about vouchers that I asked you to reread above is: “How Kelli Stargel endangers your kids more each day, part 1: Of Pastor Tiger — and why the MSD grand jury should investigate Step Up For Students oversight of voucher schools.” So I wonder how Senator Stargel’s office became “a little more aware” of the Pastor Tiger school issue.

In any event, Sarabeth is using “pop-up school” as a euphemism for the same concept that I use “grifter school” or “Pastor Tiger school” to describe. She’s using it in the same way that the Orlando Sentinel used “Schools without Rules” in its epic reporting on the provider network for vouchers last year. Whatever word you use, these schools are the backbone of the voucher provider network. And they are a toxic threat to the vulnerable children who are grifted into attending them.

Again, if you doubt me on this, consider that every year a child attends a private school with today’s corporate vouchers makes that child less likely to attend a private school with a voucher the next year. It’s the ultimate voting with your feet based on firsthand experience. See image below. Click to enlarge.

Overwhelmingly, they come back to us. And they come back worse off than they left.

“We all oppose it; but it’s going to happen:” the menace beneath the thanks

Having watched the clip above and read that discussion, watch this very brief clip from later in the meeting. This is where the voucher issue transitions into an overall theory of power and democracy and public representation.

Townsend: Does anybody [on the Board] support [the voucher expansion]?

Reynolds: I think we all oppose it; but it’s going to happen. (Laughter)

Townsend: See, there’s much too much of that.

I really don’t mean to single out Sarabeth. I appreciate her doing the work in Tallahassee to report the Board’s concerns to the powers-that-be up there. But she was the key voice on this in the meeting; and our exchanges were very helpful for public understanding, I thought. What she expresses here is a very, very common approach to power, when you are in the weaker position. If we placate power and flatter it, maybe it will restrain itself based on our goodwill. Maybe we can appeal to its reason. 

Do you see any evidence that we can appeal to Tallahassee’s reason in the voucher discussion? Or much of anything else regarding education or the public good as a whole? I don’t. They’re not even “aware” of the widely and comprehensively reported risks of the provider network they’re serving kids up to. It’s much, much, much more important for us to make them brutally aware than to thank them for their ignorance and beg them for mercy. That almost never works, anyway, in my experience.

What happens instead?

Power makes you morally complicit in whatever it wants to do. Power makes you dishonest — both to yourself and to your constituents about your capacity to govern with clarity and purpose. That’s no way to live or to govern on behalf of the public in a representative democracy. And, of course, it only strengthens power’s power over you and the people you represent. Power does not like to own what it does. So it wants to make you own it.

Advocates of thanking power portray it as savvy political operation. But in truth, it rests on fear and implied menace. These rulers who supposedly love us will punish us if we are honest with them, rather than acting as subjects. And to be clear, being confrontationally honest with power does, quite often, come with consequences. Some are personal or political. Others are institutional.

Nice Senate budget you have there, it would be shame if something happened to it. I’ve heard that implied in some discussions I’ve had about all this. But it hasn’t come from legislators or state government; it’s actually come from our own people at home, who are afraid of what Tallahassee might do. If I were a legislator, I’d be insulted by that. But I’m not a legislator.

These aren’t reasonable times

If Tallahassee kills compression funding for our district to punish us because I was publicly honest about what the voucher program means, I’ll take responsibility for it. I’ll own it and face our employees and the voters. And I assure you, I will use everything in my power to make Tallahassee own it, too.

I don’t believe my constituents elected me to use my lack of power relative to state government as an excuse not to critique that government honestly and directly. They didn’t elect me to shy away from consequences on their behalf. They didn’t elect me to thank their abuser for abusing them.

And consider this: if we were in reasonable times, where humane public education in Florida was not under constant existential threat from the very people constitutionally-obligated to support it, nobody would be dealing with me as a board member or public figure.  I would never have run; and I probably couldn’t get elected. I’d be writing history books and maybe learning how to cook better. I know I’d be exercising more.

But we’re in an era in which a few million dollars in annual compression funding isn’t going to make the difference in the life or death of the Florida public school system. We’re in an era when the very existence of the thing we call public education, which the public overwhelming wants to strengthen, is under unrelenting attack from the power that same public elected. Trading some localized scraps at the margin each year in exchange for local complicity in whatever scheme Tallahassee wants is a death spiral.

I don’t think the public fully understands this, because, for a generation, too many people of official standing have sought to placate this power rather than confront it. Too often, elected School Boards have said, I think we all oppose it; but it’s going to happen — and stopped there. The public doesn’t fully understand what its state leaders are doing because power has made too many school boards and educational leaders complicit.

If I can’t protect voucher kids…

In conclusion, let’s turn to Loki and Tony Stark for a moment. In the first Avengers movie, they have a concise, and even profound, little colloquy on power and futility that matches up pretty well with the discussions in our last board meeting.

Key quote from Stark:

You’re missing the point. There’s no throne. There is no version of this where you come out on top. Maybe your army comes, and maybe it’s too much for us, but it’s all on you. Because if we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure we’ll avenge it.

The power at work in Pastor Tiger vouchers does not have an invincible space army. They don’t even have a good argument. So we don’t need a Hulk. We just need enough courage to speak with clarity about the obvious. Entire successful civil rights and liberation movements have been built around that idea — and the will to absorb consequences. History shows there is power in powerlessness, when powerlessness is in the right and is willing to step in front of the train. There is power in losing righteous fights. It helps win the wars to come.

Our current state government does have the short-term power to ram through this abusive voucher program. But they don’t have the power to make us thank them for whatever meaningless loin cloth they hope to tie around their naked grift. They’re begging us to become complicit, because they know this will blow up in their faces — morally, ethically, fiscally.

My answer to that is: “It’s all on you. Because if I can’t protect voucher kids and the kids of public education, you can be damn well sure I’ll try to avenge them.”

In part 3 of this, the final part, I’ll introduce you to a real-life superhero: Sheriff Peter Monroe Hagan, the single greatest local elected official in the history of the state of Florida. His moldering bones lie submerged in a sandy void of forgetting beneath a tiny grave in Putnam County’s Peniel Cemetery. That’s my melodramatic way of saying he used his official power to profoundly change our state for the better. And our state punished him for it — both in his time and today, when he’s banished from Florida’s official memory.

I’ll show you how Sheriff Hagan handled the “we all oppose it; but it’s going to happen” dilemma when death was absolutely on the line.

In his embrace of duty and consequences, Sheriff Hagan is the unattainable example that all elected officials, all wielders of official power, should aspire to. He is the elected official I use to shame myself when I need shaming. We ought to make him part of Florida’s History and Civics standards; but we won’t. Because we’re not serious about them.