The state system of public charter schools is facing a possible budget cut next year. The leaders of the charter movement are asking
that the current budget be preserved, so that programs and services can be maintained at present levels.
As part of a response to the anticipated budget cuts, the schools rallied
at the capitol last Tuesday. I was there with my school (and employer), Halau Lokahi, based in the Kalihi ahupuaa.
It might not be too much of a digression to mention parenthetically that I am a student of peoples' social movements; and as such, I am a believer in the importance of people speaking out on issues which affect them. The planned budget cuts will affect our students. I suggested that we seek an audience with Senator Baker, chair of the powerful Ways & Means committee which controls the charter school budget.
With 30 students from four schools, we took a stairwell trip to the second floor. Our students were well-behaved, and were accompanied by equally courteous adults, including one set of parents. Senator Baker's staff told us that she was not available. However, a few minutes later Brook Baehr and a KGMB 9 cameraman were invited into Sen. Baker's inner office.
The students were talking among themselves, deciding on their own spokespeople and figuring out what they would say when the opportunity arose. A staffer suggested that we wait outside if we were planning to talk; we said that we would wait quietly inside.
After about 20 minutes, three men from the sergeant-at-arms office came up into the outer office, where we were waiting. There was no interaction between our contingent of students, faculty, and parents, and the sergeant-at-arms.
At 11:30, the time at which the Senate floor session was to begin, Sen. Baker emerged from her inner office, along with Brook Baehr and a cameraman. The cameraman followed Sen. Baker out into the waiting room, where I asked if she would wait a few moments to speak with the students. She replied that she didn't have the time. I responded by reminding her that we had been waiting patiently for 30 minutes; she interrupted me, saying that she was busy, that she knew that we wanted monies for the charter schools, and that we should talk to the governor's office.
She exited the room. We left as well.
The point in reciting this account of events is to respond to an unclaimed rumor that has been circulating, alleging that our group of students, faculty, and parents had 'harassed' Sen. Baker's office staff. Moreover, the rumor insists that security guards had come to escort us out of the room. This simply isn't true; there was no communication between us and security. In fact, they appeared to be there to escort Sen. Baker, though this is speculation on my part because, as I mentioned, they said nothing to us.
This particular rumor is troubling – and amusing – on several levels. One, it serves to mask the real problem with the events of the day: that Senator Baker was not willing to speak with our students, each of whom would be personally affected by her decisions. Clearly Sen. Baker had time to talk; but she chose to talk to the media, instead of her constituents. Secondly, the rumor plays on a familiar trope: the rowdy, trouble-making teenagers, and activist adults. Third, it is evidence of a problem in public service, which treats the public not as its source of power but rather its source of discomfort and irritation.
The spurious rumor which has been conjured up about this event is symptomatic of a greater societal ailment: forgetfulness. We have forgotten that the only thing which has ever moved us forward as a society is the naked voice of truth, speaking honestly (and in protest, when necessary). All of the prizes that we cherish have been won through struggle. The right to universal suffrage, earned by the first generation of feminists and by the civil rights movement; the right for fair labor practices, including the weekend, earned by the union movement; the right to safe food and a clean environment, earned by Saul Alinsky and the environmental movement; all these were the result of social movements and political struggle. Our charter schools, too, would never have been born, if not for the efforts for cultural rejuvenation, Hawaiian sovereignty, and indigenous rights.
I'm reminded of Frederick Douglas, the early abolitionist and ex-slave, who said that "if there is no struggle, there is no progress." He continues:
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
I know that Senator Baker is a good and just person. She was a key leader in the movement to extend the voting age to 18, which is an indication of the belief that I share with her that young people are important and should be involved in politics. I also have faith that she will choose to restore the charter school budget to its current levels.
But any rumors which condemn or vilify our good faith efforts to see her last week should be seen for what they are - mere rumor.