Return on Investment: Kemala Karmen on Public Education

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Photo: T. Karmen-Chan

Some months ago, I posted an interview with educator Matt Bardin about the crucial role of education — specifically literacy — in maintaining a functioning democracy (“Literacy vs. Tyranny: A Conversation with Matt Bardin”). By way of further discussion, public education advocate Kemala Karmen kindly agreed to sit down with me to carry on that conversation.

The parent of two New York City public school students, a founding member of NYC Opt Out, and a steering committee member of New York State Allies for Public Education, Karmen has long been active in organizing other parents in advocating for developmentally appropriate, child-centered education policies. She co-founded the design-thinking consultancy NYCpublic and is one half of the film production/social media messaging company Shoot4Education. S4E recently created an online short film series, “8 Powerful Voices in Defense of Public Education,” for the nonprofit advocacy group Network for Public Education.


TKN: Thanks for speaking with me, Kemala. Can we begin by just talking about the state of American public education in broad strokes?

KK: Well, our public education systems in general are always running towards this question of “What’s the fix, what’s the fix, what’s the fix?” There are some fixes that we know of that work, including just reducing class size. If you look at other countries, they’re investing in the teaching force and the further professionalization of teachers. On the other hand, here we’ve come up with fixes like Teach for America and so-called “personal learning” software programs that kids just plug into on tablets. These actually encourage de-professionalization because they make the person in the front of the classroom kind of interchangeable. There is obviously a political benefit to that: busting the union; that’s why there’s such a push for it. There’s money that can be made off of tech, whereas it’s expensive to reduce class size, it’s expensive to really pay teachers what they’re worth, it’s expensive to educate them in a way that they should be educated for teaching well. If we’re talking about what really needs to happen, it’s some really big changes, not band-aids. And that’s the sort of investment we seem reluctant to make in our schools.

TKN: You would think that by now people would understand that the return on that investment is massive and the penalty for not making the investment is crushing. So why is there a disconnect?

KK: This is an area where, unfortunately, I think the left and the right have been equally blind. You can’t just blame the right. We wouldn’t be where we are today with things like excessive testing and school choice run amok and whatever else if Democrats hadn’t also been complicit.

I was at a really interesting meeting the other night with this guy named Charles Johnson who is a preacher from Texas and runs an organization called Pastors for Texas Children. He points out that there are these small rural communities in Texas — maybe even not so small — where it’s recognized that the school is the center of civic life. And so they actually are coming together to protect their schools, no matter their political stripe, because they see their civic life eroding and they understand that is something that needs to be protected.

TKN: That’s eminently sensible to me. So why is it taking root there and not everywhere?

KK: Well, that’s what he asked me. He said, “You liberals in New York are a bigger problem than we are in Texas.”

TKN: Because nobody’s doing that sort of thinking?

KK: Well, it’s this blindness about privatization of schools. We have these organizations like DFER, Democrats for Education Reform, all these billionaires who are putatively liberal but are really neo-liberal. It wasn’t until very recently that the NAACP, for example, came out with a moratorium on charter schools. And they’ve caught hell for that.

I don’t want to give the impression that public schools are all OK. They’re not. They certainly can improve. But our efforts should be going into improving our schools rather than creating a parallel system because separate is never equal.

TKN: So talking about allegedly progressive wealthy people — whether it’s in New York or elsewhere — I don’t want to generalize, but is there disinterest in public education because of this apartheid, where they can put their kids in private schools and make sure they’re well-educated and therefore they don’t have much skin in the game?

KK: I think that’s probably a big part of it. If you look at most of the people who style themselves as education reformers, their kids do not go to public school. They’re advocating for the kinds of schools that they wouldn’t send their own children to. And that’s not to say that everybody who’s on my “side” sends their kids to public school. Some don’t. But it’s not because they don’t believe in the mission of the public school. They want public schools to look like the schools that they choose to send their children to.

I think on the wealthy “reformer” side they fundamentally believe that there is something wrong with people as they are and that we need to have “character education” to inculcate middle class values. They don’t respect what people are bringing to the table as is, and believe we need to create a culture of compliance.

TKN: So you’re saying that within the charter school movement, or within the conservative approach to education in general, there’s an ideological component to what they want to do? Is that fair to say?

KK: I think there are many components to it. I know some think these privatization people are just in it for the money, or they’re just in it for the power, or whatever. But I think a lot of people in the charter movement honestly believe that they are doing something to help. I just don’t agree that it is going to help all that much, and that the pitfalls outweigh any benefits.

I do think some people are in it for the money. There are for-profit charter schools — not in New York, but even in New York, where the law is that charter schools have to be not-for-profit, you can have a building that the charter school leases from another entity that also belongs to the school’s owners, so the school is technically not-for-profit but in reality somebody’s making money. There are investment laws that encourage investment in charter schools. If you invest in a charter school, it’s possible to get certain types of visas. So while there are definitely good folks in that movement, there are other things at work too.

TKN: Well on the right, there’s a fetish for privatization across the board, not just in education but in everything.

KK: Right.

TKN: I remember when Barack Obama first came to the White House and he and Michelle decided to put their kids in private schools: you would think that would have been a bigger sticking point or source of outrage to the right, given that they were outraged about everything he did, even the littlest, most trivial things, like taking his jacket off in the Oval Office. But compared to everything else the right attacked him for, I don’t remember it being that big a deal. It almost felt like even people who hated Barack Obama understood that, if they were in his situation, they would not have subjected their children to a DC public school, not even on principle. I’m just surprised that more people who hated him didn’t bring that up.

And of course we’ve had many education secretaries send their children to private school. Which is a kind of damning symbolism.

KK: Arne Duncan did not. His kids went to public schools in Virginia. But it was in a well-to-do suburb, so those schools were probably funded better than many public schools in the country. And they didn’t implement the Common Core in the way that he espoused for the rest of the country. His successor, John King, ran a no-excuses charter chain but sent his own kids to a private Montessori school.

TKN: Not that we’re saying the Secretary of Education should send his or her kids to the worst public schools out of solidarity. The idea is that all public schools should be that good.

KK: Right. And of course, Betsy DeVos’s kids went to private Christian schools.

TKN: No surprise there.

KK: I agreed with what Matt Bardin said when you interviewed him, that people get turned off by school, by learning, by intellectual endeavor, if they don’t feel there’s a place in it for them. One way to do that is to make you feel stupid and hold you back. Another way is to have pedagogy that is very constrained by a goal that is outside of the child and the child’s community and context. And again, a lot of the big-marquee education philanthropists who are supportive of high-stakes standardized testing or “no excuse” education, which features very harsh discipline, those same people send their children to schools that don’t use a lot of tech. They send their children to schools that have lots of project-based, hands-on learning where the children find authority in themselves; it’s not imposed on them. I’m very lucky to have been able to send my children to schools like that within the public system. So there are schools like that that exist in the public system. But rather than replicate those schools, they’re pursuing a different model.

For instance, SUNY — which is the charter authorizer in New York state — just passed a policy that will allow certain charter schools to circumvent the normal pathway to teacher certification. And I would certainly argue, having spoken to many families whose children go to charter schools, that the reason why certain charters have trouble staffing their schools is not because there’s some general teacher shortage but because their teachers aren’t treated well. When you have a method that is about subduing the child, it puts a lot of pressure on the children, but it also puts a lot of pressure on the teacher. If you’re at loggerheads at your job all day, you’re not going to last long.


TKN: I’m afraid to ask about Betsy DeVos, but I do want to know….Is there anything you want to say about her?

KK: Well, she’s just another example of Trump appointing people to his Cabinet who want to destroy the very thing they’re put in charge of. Ironically, there’s an article debunking the claim that she’s never set foot in a public school. Apparently she actually did volunteer at a public school in Michigan, but what she did there was persuade children to enroll in a Christian school instead. She’s dangerous.

TKN: You know Betsy’s brother is Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, who is the flip side of privatization of education, the privatization of war. Two areas that arguably have no business being privatized. Probably the first two functions of the state that you don’t want to be private are everything that their family is about.

KK: Absolutely. I recently made a series of eight short films with my film partner Michael Elliot, and one of them features Linda Lyon, the woman who is the president-elect of the Arizona School Board Association. She’s a retired Air Force colonel, and she says, “I saw privatization when I was in the military. It didn’t work there and it sure as heck doesn’t work for schools.”

TKN: I always imagine that if we were starting our country right now and somebody said, “Hey, the cornerstone of what we’re doing should be free public education for everybody,” there’d be a riot. It’d be like healthcare. I think the reaction would be: “What are you, crazy? We’re not gonna do that! We’re not gonna be some nanny state!” And maybe that’s why public education in America is in the state it is.

KK: The other day a friend of mine said, “The same people who understand why it’s not OK to privatize water, why it’s not OK to privatize prisons, why it’s not ok to privatize the military, for some reason those people still think it’s OK to privatize schools.” Why is that? Why is education so different that people would suspend a belief that they don’t suspend for other things?

In New York, Cuomo is a big problem. Cuomo is really in bed with the charter school lobby, and there are lots of donations from there. He appeared at (founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools) Eva Moskowitz’s big rally that she had in Albany, one that’s projected to have cost over $700,000. Meanwhile, my children go to a school that is crumbling, and has roaches and mice running across the floor during class time, and they’re spending $700,000 on a political rally!

Cuomo came out really hard in 2014 on two issues. One was teacher evaluations, in which he said student testing should count for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation. The other thing that he did was encourage legislation — which passed — that New York City has to either provide space for charter schools in existing school buildings or it needs to pay their rent in whatever non-NYC Department of Ed spaces they find. So this is a way in which every child in a New York City public school is affected. Even if your school isn’t a site of a co-location, the budget of available money is partially used in that way. I think it’s outrageous.

Of course, that’s only one of many things that are outrageous. For example, the state of New York controls the criteria for who gets into New York City’s competitive and increasingly racially isolated specialized high schools. It decides how many charters can be sited here. New York City has no control over it. There are very few charter schools elsewhere in the state, they’re mostly in New York City, and yet a legislator on Long Island is going to decide what happens here. Because it’s state law.


TKN: Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved in these issues and became — for lack of a better term — educated about them?

KK: Well, I grew up in Metarie, Louisiana–

TKN: David Duke’s hometown.

KK: Right. And my family were outliers where I grew up. We were the only people that looked like us. My parents were the only people — or almost the only people — who voted like we did. We were just very different. And when I was in 4th grade, racially-based busing started. My next-door neighbor was a teacher at the school and she laid down in the driveway of the school to stop the buses from arriving. The buses couldn’t come in.

I had experienced a lot of racism in my school and in my neighborhood and I was looking forward to busing because I thought then I wouldn’t be the only brown kid. Unfortunately it wasn’t really an answer to my prayers because I found out I’m also not a black kid.

But when I got to middle school I was bused from my largely white neighborhood to a black neighborhood. And that again was sort of eye-opening. I didn’t know it at that moment but later I would find out that my middle school and what would later be my high school were built the same year: one with air conditioning and one without. I’ll let you guess which one was which. And this is Louisiana, remember. It’s HOT. The air conditioned building was in a white neighborhood, and the one without air conditioning was in the black neighborhood.

Anyway, my dad became the PTA president — or vice president, I can’t remember which one now — and he was active in the ACLU, which was not very popular. So I come from a family where you don’t just sit back; you take some action.

The high school I eventually went to was the largest all-girl school in the South, 4000 girls. It was a public school, and the reason it was a single-sex school is that when the local school system got a racial desegregation order, they segregated the sexes.

TKN: So when they were ordered to desegregate by race, they segregated by sex?

KK: Yes. So you can draw your own conclusions why that might have been. Anyway, my father was involved with the ACLU, as I said, and they were bringing a lawsuit to challenge this segregation by sex, specifically through Title IX. The ACLU was making the argument that the girls weren’t offered the same courses that the boys were. I was asked to be a plaintiff and begged off. I was in 8th grade. It’s something that I have regretted my whole life. I just didn’t want any attention on me. I already felt out of place. I was embarrassed, I was scared. But now I feel like I missed the opportunity to be part of that. I’m happy to say that by the time my younger sister went to that high school there were boys enrolled there, but I went through with no boys.

So I do have a family background of activism, but I wasn’t particularly focused on education until I had a child. I date my involvement to a couple of things:

My oldest is 16, and when she was in kindergarten they wanted to expand standardized testing in New York City to begin in kindergarten. (At that time testing began in the 3rd grade.) So I signed a petition against it at my school, and the parent organizing the petition drive told me that there was going to be City Council testimony on this issue, so please, if you signed this petition and you can make it, come down to City Hall. I’d never been to City Hall for testimony before, so I went. And I listened as councilperson after councilperson seemed to agree that in fact it was ridiculous to give kindergartners standardized tests. And yet at the end of the day, because of mayoral control, what the City Council says makes no difference.

TKN: Why did they even have the council meetings if they had no power?

KK: It’s a good question, a very good question. The Department of Education is just not bound by what the City Council does. The mayor has sole control of the schools so he doesn’t have to listen to the City Council.

And I never felt so disenfranchised. I’m a person of color, but I have had material advantage, I’m well educated, blah blah blah. So I de facto have had a certain amount of entitlement. That’s what I’m used to: that if I say something, there’s a channel for it. Maybe the end result won’t be what I want, but there is some place for my voice. And I realized that, as a public school parent in New York City, there is no place for your voice. There is nothing. The closest thing is that each district has a community education council but their power is extremely limited. They can only vote on zoning, which given real estate in New York is a big thing, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

So this was just like a big light bulb for me, this disenfranchisement. And around the same time I was going to the Red Hook swimming pool and that was another place where I was like, “Wow, I have never been treated like this in my life, where there’s some infraction and everybody gets whistled out of the pool. And they’re doing this because it’s poor people who swim at this pool.” So it was just a real wake-up call to where my entitlement ended! (laughs)

TKN: To step back for a minute: which mayor was it who decided that testing was going to begin in kindergarten?

KK: That was Bloomberg. Though in the end they didn’t do it.

TKN: Do you know why he decided that over the objections of the City Council? I’m not asking you to speculate about his mindset but….

KK: Well, Bloomberg was a very big proponent of the type of education reform that believes tech can solve everything. If our schools aren’t working we need to close them. We need to get rid of teachers. The problem is teachers. He’s a textbook education reformer in that mold, the business model of education.

TKN: He’s a businessman.

KK: He’s a businessman. Exactly. So he would like to treat schools that same way. And the damage he did is still happening, because unfortunately the DeBlasio administration has not dismantled a lot of things that were put in place then.


TKN: Would you talk a little about Shoot4Education?

KK: Sure. Shoot4Education was the brainchild of my filmmaking partner Michael Elliot. At the time I was in a now-defunct grassroots organization — that’s the curse of grassroots organizations, there’s no money to sustain them so people get burned out. Anyway, that organization was called ParentVoicesNY, formed in response to there being no official channel for parents’ voices. Michael is a commercial film editor and wasn’t part of the group, but his children went to school with parents who were in it, and he came to us and he said, “I want to make a film with you guys.” This was when DeBlasio was running for his first term as mayor or maybe had just been elected. The point of the film was to encourage him to pick a schools chancellor who was progressive on education, and was going to disrupt — to use their own word — the sort of the trajectory that Bloomberg had had us on for the past 12 years. And so I met Michael, and we got to talking and once he knew that I had a film background, and I gave him feedback on cuts, he was like, “I’m gonna get you back into film.” And I said, “Ahhh…. (laughs)

TKN: (laughs) Big favor he did you! “Thanks Michael!”

KK: He said, “You’re a filmmaker, you should be making films.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, it’s so much hassle and I don’t think I have the drive for it.” He said, “No. You’ve got to be making films again.” (laughs)

I had also co-founded a little not-for-profit with my friend and colleague Liz Rosenberg called NYCpublic. We used design-thinking protocols and progressive education practices to help groups of people ideate around thorny problems. Originally it was for public schools, but we also worked for the public library, for the public advocate’s office, trying to connect public institutions to the actual voices of their constituents. We had one project where we were working with a school district that had a grant to change their middle school enrollment system and had hired us to do the community engagement piece of that work. We said, “You know what? This is all about children and yet there are no children here, it’s just adults talking about children.” By the time children are in middle school they have voices! Many of them have voices even younger than that, but by middle school they’re definitely thoughtful about their situation. So we thought, “How can we bring children into this room?” And we realized the answer was to make a little film that brought the children into the conversation. And so I worked with Michael on making that film, and once I was back into interviewing and shooting and whatever, I was hooked again.

So we have this wonderful symbiotic relationship. Before I started to partner with him, Michael had been trying to pitch this idea of making a series of films that highlighted some of our pro-public education ideas. He said, “They” — meaning the ‘education reform’ side — “have got all the money, but we’ve got the people. We just we need to figure out how to get our message in front of more people and we need professional video, we need production value in what we do in really trying to sell this.”

So we made this series of short films funded by the Network for Public Education. It was a totally new adventure for me, as I’d pretty much worked only in documentary until then, and this is something kind of in between documentary and advertising. So it’s real people, but it’s a pointed message. It’s not an off-the-cuff interview. I’ve never been involved in that before, so that was both crazy-making abut also kind of fun. We released the first one in September, and we’ll be releasing them one at a time through the spring. That first short film was about Diane Ravitch, the founder of the Network for Public Education. Our goal with it was 100,000 views. We’ve actually had 850,000 views with a reach into almost two million Facebook feeds. Our newest video, 2 School Districts, 1 Ugly Truth, was just posted online last week and has already got over a million Facebook views.

TKN: That’s amazing.

KK: It is amazing. But I think the message resonates with people.

You asked me about Betsy DeVos before. We were a little savvy about the hatred of Betsy DeVos. She’s supposed to be the most hated Cabinet member, and so her name is in the title of that first film, as a little bit of clickbait. I don’t know if that’s what got people to watch or what got people to watch, but we’re hoping that it’s both that and just building our relationships with all these different grassroots groups. So now we’re starting to work with the subjects of the other spots who don’t have necessarily the national reach that Diane Ravitch has, but we’re hoping they’ll leverage their own existing audiences and build word of mouth for them.

TKN: Right, that’s the definition of grassroots. It would be a mixed blessing if Betsy resigns because she won’t be there to help you fundraise. Her marketing muscle will disappear!

KK: (laughs) That’s right.

TKN: Thank you for speaking with me, Kemala, it’s been a pleasure and I wish you all the best with your work.

KK: Thanks, Bob.


Click below to watch the first two short films in the new S4E/NPE series “8 Powerful Voices in Defense of Public Education.”

Why Are Betsy DeVos and Bill Gates Afraid of This Grandmother?, featuring Diane Ravitch of the Network for Public Education.

2 School Districts, 1 Ugly Truth, featuring John Kuhn, Superintendent, Mineral Wells Independent School District, TX, about the shocking inequity between public schools in rich and poor communities, using one district in Texas as an example.

Additional links:

Photo: T. Karmen-Chan

Transcription: Sherry Alwell /

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Writer, filmmaker, and veteran — blogging at The King’s Necktie @TheKingsNecktie

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