Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Why should I have to pay for the education of those people?"

On Monday, I posted on the Dream Act. Some people thought that I was beginning to launch a crusade for the Dream Act, but that was not my purpose. Actually, my purpose was to discuss a deeper issue about our attitude as a community towards educating people who don't look like us...people of different races, religions or appearances.

Last week, the school board held a public hearing on a one year increase in property taxes, a proposal which I voted against. During that public hearing, a citizen told us that he was troubled by raising taxes to pay for the education of Somali immigrants. Several people in the audience nodded knowingly with approval. Why should WE have to pay taxes to educate THEM. My no-vote had nothing to do with the view that we shouldn't have to pay for the education of people who don't look like us. My issue was that the tax, even though for just one year, wasn't accompanied by a plan to keep costs in check and to keep the district sustainable. My vote was about exhaustion from the constant cycle of cuts, taxes and endless bargaining, that never seem to resolve themselves into a sustainability plan from the State, which under our Constitution has the central responsibility for public education finance.

I wanted here to write a bit about this question of US paying for THEM. In doing that, I want to be crystal clear, as a no-vote, I'm certainly not suggesting that everybody who is against taxes is motivated by this question of whether the kids who will benefit include some people who are different from the rest of us. Most of the people in our community reject that point of view. But just as surely, I know that there are folks in our community who agree with the fellow who came to the podium and complained that we taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for certain immigrants. And it is to them, and about them, that this post is directed.

Let's begin with the central fact that the school district, the school board, and the children who go to our schools, had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to open our community to immigrants. That decision was made by the Governor, the State Department under the Bush Administration, and a variety of community leaders. Nonetheless, from time to time, a citizen points his finger at me and seems to blame me as a school board member for his anger at immigration and immigrants. Listen. As a school district, we welcome every student who walks in our doors, because we are in the business of educating all children. We believe that a community that leaves some of its children uneducated is a community that is in the process of destroying itself.

A public school district educates all children, and we are proud of that. If you think about it, there's something a little bit screwy about suggesting that we shouldn't be willing to pay for a world class education for all of our students, simply because we don't identify with some of them. Who is harmed, really, when you refuse to pay for the education of your children, neighbors children and grandchildren, because you have a problem with the race or religion of some of our students. . If this conversation makes you uncomfortable, I apologize, but there it is. We need to face the fact that all of the kids who go to our school district are children of God, and they all deserve a great education, even if they look or seem differently.

Some sociologists claim that when a homogeneous community (all white, all Lutheran, all Christian, all German, or choose your favorite here) experiences an influx of "outsiders," that the community suffers a crisis in community cohesion that can be very destructive of the long term resilience of that community. If a new group enters the community, the "old-timers" immediately begin to discuss their differences, and start to question whether the newcomers are legitimate members of the community. It happened when Irish Catholic immigrants arrived in predominately Protestant communities. It happened when German Catholics migrated into predominantly Scandinavian communities here in Minnesota. It can happen when Hispanic or blacks migrate into an all-white community. When a community struggles with its differences, it is struggling for its soul. Will we maintain our sense of community or lose it?

This idea, that the newcomers don't deserve the community benefits of education and other services to the same extent as the old-timers is a common topic of community conversation in many communities. If that conversation goes in the wrong direction, the entire community may choose to punish itself, by refusing to support education, municipal infrastructure, and other community assets, in a way that causes the majority community to harm itself, to avoid benefiting the minority community.

And this is the central question that we need to come to grips with as a community: are we going to believe in ourselves as a community as we become more diverse, or are we going to punish ourselves, all of us, because some of us don't want to support those of us who don't look like us.

If you are angry that Governor Pawlenty -- or George Bush, or whoever--volunteered Minnesota and St. Cloud to receive immigrants, do you really want to take that anger out on yourself, your children and grandchildren and the entire community? Or, do you want a community that insists that all children who live here are going to leave high school well educated, ready to work and support themselves and make a contribution to the community? Do you see those immigrants as a reason to punish the entire community because, well I'll be darned if I'm going to support education for "them." Or, are we going to find a way to pull this community together and make sure that people who come from a very different place and history, are challenged to understand our history, our language, our literature, and our civic tradition.

Which vision of our community is going to stand us in greater stead? The one that leaves children uneducated or one that insists that all of our young people do well?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dream Act and a bit of history

Education blog has been on vacation, lately, because I've been overwhelmed at work. But when I can catch a free minute, I've been reading an account of the Mexican-American war. This reading occured just as the Senate was rejecting the so-called Dream Act, which would have created a road to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. The Dream Act would have provided certain illegal and deportable alien students who graduate from US high schools, who are of good moral character, arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors, and have been in the country continuously and illegally for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment, the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency if they complete two years in the military or two years at a four year institution of higher learning. There are arguments for and against the Dream Act, but the coincidence of reading about the Mexican American War places it in a context that I hadn't considered before.

Mexico's colonial history dates from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. For the next couple hundred years, Mexico and our own colonies shared a parallel colonial history, each incorporating many of the governance traditions of our respective colonial mother, Spain and England. England visited upon its colonies the so-called liberal democratic tradition which offered a modicum of democratic governance to the propertied, white men of some wealth, and that tradition evolved eventually into our Constitutional government. Spain visited upon its colonies a substantially different colonial system, dominated by a central Viceroy. After attaining our respective independences, each country faced its own challenge from its former colonial mother country, but the second Mexican war with Spain extended far longer and was much more debilitating. By 1840, Mexico had considerable disadvantages in relation to the United States in terms of industrialization, economic growth, governance, and military power.

Under Presidents from Jackson to Polk, the United States pursued a policy of expansion and growth, and of subjugation of the native people who stood in the way of the United State's government desire to develop and populate new lands. This dispute over expansion created internal tensions within the nation, because politicians in the North saw expansion towards Mexico as potentially changing the balance in the Senate and Congress on the question of slavery. President Polk focused his administration on finding reasons to go to war with Mexico and eventually convinced a divided Congress to support a war of Mexican conquest.
After a costly war, with brutality on both sides, a war waged largely on Mexican soil, the army of the United States defeated the Mexican army. By the end of his administration., Polk's expansion policy had resulted in acquisition (conquest) from Mexico of all or significant portions of California, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. The economic and political consequences to Mexico and its people were ultimately to prove devastating. Mexico lost access to and control over vast water resources, leaving Mexico with the poorest and least farmable lands of its former empire. It lost control of gold, silver, and other mining resources, and as it turned out, it lost the future oil wealth of Texas. The immigration pressure from Mexico to the United States results, in part, from the economic destruction of the nation of Mexico, and in part on the less aggressive Spanish approach to industrialization and capital formation which characterized that nation.

One of the prices that a conquering nation pays for visiting economic destruction on a neighboring country is that the impoverished country cannot support its population leading to cross border immigration pressure for seekers of opportunity, employment and education. That means, that the conquering nation must either engage in costly aggressive, often futile efforts to stem the tide of immigration, or it must find ways to assure that the immigrants who do arrive are educated and incorporated into the population as full citizens.

Now before you decide to attack this blog from the left or right, I'd ask you to recognize that what I'm saying is embedded with historical and economic truth. If you are anti-Dream Act, you can support your argument from this historical perspective by saying, yes, I'm aware of the causes of those pressures, and it is precisely because of those pressures, that I believe that we must redouble our effort to keep our fingers in the dike and hold back the inevitable immigration pressures arising from economic inequalities. If you are pro-Dream Act, you can point out that a significant proportion of the child-immigrants have come to portions of our country that were originally part of Mexico, and that they have simply travelled from one part of the Mexican Diaspora to another. History furnishes arguments for either point of view.

Immigration has formed an important part of the economic, cultural and political history of our country and of North America. From 1881 to 1890, 41 percent of our nation's population growth came from immigration. From 1891 to 1900, 28 percent of our population growth resulted from immigration, and by 1900, nearly 14% of our nation's population were foreign born citizens. In the first decade of the twentieth century, more than half of the increase of our population was accounted for by immigrants, and about 14.6 percent of our population were foreign born immigrants. In each of those decades through the 1920's, immigration to the United States exceeded 3.6 million, ranging from a high of 8.8 million per decade to a low of 3.7 million. With the advent of the depression, and economic and political chaos worldwide, immigration into the United States fell to an all time 528,000 for the decade. The period of our greatest economic depression thus coincided with the period of our least immigration as well as a period of significant erection of international trade barriers.

The period from 1941 to 1990, witnessed a resurgence of immigration, particularly under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980's under whose presidency immigration rose to 7.3 million for the decade. Under Reagan, immigration accounted for 1/3 of the nation's population growth and the percentage of our population that was foreign born rose from historic lows --5.4 percent in the 1950's, to 7.9 percent in the Reagan decade. This resurgence in immigration may be traced to several factors: the support by Republicans for immigration as a supply of cheap unskilled labor to support economic growth,and a corresponding rejection by democrats of a national policy of hostility to immigrants of Latino or Hispanic descent. It may reflect as well the growing disparity in wealth among the Americas.

The Dream Act was not about history, after all, it was about solving a major emerging crisis in America's demographic future, and I'll talk about that in my next post.