Friday, February 29, 2008

Statement on Public and Public Charter Schools

I testified today at a DC City Commission hearing on education. A couple of people thanked me for my remarks and nobody pointed at me and yelled, "drug test that man." Overall, I'd say the whole thing went pretty well.

Here's my statement:

February 29, 2008

My name is Jeff Epton and I live in Brookland. I’m a product of Chicago public schools and my two older children went to conventional public schools in Michigan. My youngest goes to E.L. Haynes Public Charter School here in the District. I have also taught (poetry) for the last three years on a part-time basis in both Chicago and DC. From the standpoint of a parent, an enthusiastic advocate of public education and a part-time teacher, I’d like to rave a little bit about E.L. Haynes.

In my judgment the teachers and staff at Haynes are highly qualified. More than that, they are enthusiastic, caring and creative and, I think, successful under challenging circumstances. The Haynes curriculum focuses both on skill development for all and on precise and targeted responsiveness to individual children. On that basis alone, Haynes offers Chancellor Rhee and DC public schools one more opportunity to observe and evaluate successful innovation.

There’s three quick points I’d like to make here:

1. We should avoid lengthy debates that focus on distinctions between public schools and public charter schools. Everyone wants to be accountable here. Everyone wants to see the schools strengthened by innovative practices. And we all want to recruit, develop and retain skilled and dedicated teachers and staff. Public schools were once the best tool we had to build democracy and still have the potential to help us build a truly human and enriched society. Charter schools are not the enemy in that, they are a simply a means to achieve some of the revitalization we seek.

2. At times in the past, organized labor may have been an obstacle to improving the schools. But unions have also been a way to insure that the interests and skills of working people are represented in efforts to make change. Unions should be partners in whatever we do to improve the public schools. And not just teachers, either. Students at the schools know the people who work in the schools, the custodial staff, food service staff and others. And those workers know the children and have something to offer this effort, too. Their unions should be a part of these discussions.

3. It may be that if a distinction develops between charters and other public schools that we can’t resolve, it is because these schools are competing for a piece of a pie that is not sufficient to meet their needs. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The American public school system has suffered sustained neglect over the last 30 years. We must make our schools as efficient as we can and we must demand accountability.

But we must also demand—in concert with school systems and city councils from around the country—that our federal government increase its investment in our children by increasing its investment in public schools of every description.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017
202 506-7470

Thursday, February 28, 2008

"The Ones We Have Been Waiting For"

After the last Clinton-Obama debate, which I missed, I heard from several friends about how disappointing Barack's position was on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I also heard and read Obama's comments about Minister Farrakhan, an apparent "Sista Souljah" moment for Barack.

I don't like the idea that Obama feels he must first assure everyone that Israel's security is a concern that trumps all other considerations. Maybe he doesn't actually feel that way, but it sure seems to be the case despite the fact that the dispossession of Palestinians and the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel are: a., historical facts, b., not particularly different, morally, than the dispossesion of the American Indian, and c., problems that require a more productive response.

The relentless pressure of the pro-Israel lobby and propoganda machine has been a fact of American political life for the last sixty years. Asking a politician to resist the environment the lobby creates in the absence of a movement that questions Israel's right to exist as a theocratic state is asking too much, especially in a militarized American economy that now spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year to maintain the United States and its various client states as a global empire.

Obama's comments about Farrakhan may genuinely reflect Barack's true feelings. It is just as possible that Bill Clinton's denunciation of "Sista Souljah" during one of his presidential campaigns (the second one?) was also sincere. But neither should have been necessary. It is our own racism and the jealous care we take of our privileges that provokes some politicians to venture into such unnuanced territory. Obama spoke out because failure to take a position on Farrakhan would have been interpreted as taking a position.

In any case, Obama is not "the one" we have been waiting for. We, ourselves, are "the ones," as Barack puts it. We cannot reasonably expect Obama to come equipped with a checklist of things he will do for us, or expect him to take progressive positions in advance of a true movement that will demand the action we wish to see.

I see the likely possibility of an Obama presidency as creating the largest space since Roosevelt for progressive action. But the New Deal was not a Roosevelt agenda item; instead, it happened because a movement demanded such action and Roosevelt was more open to it than any other 20th century president. I am not saying that Obama will be another Roosevelt, but he can be the 21st century Obama we make him be.

Monday, February 25, 2008


This memory finally fades:

He approached, smiling. “It’s okay,” he said. We made eye contact, innocent and sexy. His eyes were warm and brown.

Surprising myself, I sighed. But I felt relief. I had feared this moment.

He leaned forward and reached out toward me. I thought he was going to hug me and I stepped inside his arms, wrapping mine around him.

But he didn’t hug me. His fingers gripped the back of my neck, pulling me close. His touch was a surprise; the force of it,
a further shock. Startling.

His mouth brushed my ear. His voice was soft. I concentrated, trying to hear him. I imagined his lips, shaping each word, giving them substance, materiality. I could feel the words.

I closed my eyes, strained to listen. His voice stayed soft. But his words were vulgar. Violent. I pulled away, but he held on, whispering.

When he let go, I felt tossed away. We made eye contact again; nothing innocent or sexy or kind. He walked away.

I will let the details go, but I do not intend to forget.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

So the Poets Say, So the Poets Tell Us

I have my own poems,
I have my heart, my moon, my breath and my secrets,
I have my love to babies,
And my faith that more will rise as my children rose,

But it is the poems of others,
The words that tear and soothe,
The words that rip and drip and feed and drink
That lift me up and grow me strong and race my heart

Further than I would have dared or dreamed to go.
It was Walt Whitman who waked me.
“Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you,” he wrote,
“That you be my poem.” And I believed I could be.

Poet Essex Hemphill, smart and black and gay,
He touched me, too, and called
Sure black men to build walls of protection around
The beleagured in Anacostia and Harlem and the wavering poor.

Martin King reminded us that the great men of war
Spoke about peace as though they could deliver such a thing
By bombing us and killing us. Those who feel that war brings
Solutions to our problems “are sleeping through the revolution,”

Martin said. For every Viet Cong soldier we kill, we spend $500,000 to do so,
He said. And asked us how much we spend to educate a child or lift a sister
Out of poverty. And Audre Lorde, who reminded us constantly of the dead
We left behind and the dead we had yet to encounter, told us also about

The woman she loved who drew for her a bath of old roses.
And as Audre counted women caught in traps, one by one until
She reached the fifteenth one, the one with the courage to change
The question, Marge Piercy counted still others, living and dying

On street corners and discovered she was one of those with
The heart to endure and to love, “… the love we cupped so clumsily,”
the love raging and driving, “… an engine of light,” she wrote.
Just so did Langston Hughes remind us of the mourners, who

“Got up smiling, happy they were here.” And Dylan Thomas
Urged us to resist, “to not go gentle into that good night.”
How much did he charge us with, to waste nothing,
Least of all, ourselves? And having decided to live on,

How should we live? Anne Sexton tells us there is always more,
A for instance: the boy who finds a nickel and looks for a wallet,
Finds a string and looks for a harp, finds a golden key and
Unlocks a book of mysteries and fables and princesses and ogres.

This is something and there is more: the sunny days and open wounds
Of childhood, from where we came, troubled but standing,
And with Paticia Smith, “determined not to write a poem
Glorifying loss”

The uncontrasted gray of some days and other
Days of blood and tears and bursts of laughter.
Or as Ginsberg had it, “Candor ends paranoia…
Notice what you notice…catch yourself thinking.”

Of course, he adds, “others can measure their vision by what we see,”
Another way of saying that in our shared experiences and love lies
Liberation. Giovanni said that, too. “She’s our own star
shining from afar her life a beacon of who we are”

I am not a leader, but I know that there’s always another battle
And I hope to be there, following Martin, looking for ways that
Peaceful means can bring peaceful ends. In the meantime, as Giles said,
“There’s another Hellmouth under Cleveland,” and maybe we should go there.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

An Economy and Budget That Works - Part Two, Social Security

Robert Samuelson is the Washington Post's go-to guy on economic issues, which means that he has a major role in defining orthodoxy on budget and policy issues. Yes, there are elected and appointed officials--President Bush, congressional leaders, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernake and others--who occupy command positions in defining the limits of debate about the economy, but as media figures go, Samuelson swings a lot of weight.

Samuelson has occupancy rights on prime turf--a weekly op-ed column in the Post and another column in Newsweek magazine. The options for challenging Samuelson's pronouncements are limited. A letter to the editor might do, but such a letter, if it gets published, gets less space than Samuelson does and comes after the fact. Why does this matter?

Well, one case in point might be a column Samuelson wrote earlier this week about Barack Obama, who Samuelson says, is not telling Americans the truth. "A truth-telling Obama might say: 'Spending for retirees--mainly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid--is already nearly half the federal budget. Unless we curb these rising costs, we will crush our children with higher taxes," Samuelson wrote.

Social Security is a hobby horse of Samuelson's; its vulnerability, combined with the rising federal deficit allegedly comprise a poison pill that future generations will be forced to swallow by the inaction (read selfishness) of baby boomers. Obama's disinformation, Samuelson claims, includes a pledge not to "raise the retirement age" or reduce benefits to retirees. Obama's further proposal to provide tax relief to retirees making less than $50,000 annually shifts even "more of the tax burden to younger workers," says Samuelson.

But, as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has pointed out repeatedly, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has calculated that Social Security will be able to pay current and future retirees through 2052 without any changes to the current tax structure (excepting gradual increases in payments to reflect cost of living increases). and the national budget deficit, a genuine problem for all of us, is an entirely separate issue from Social Security.

In fact, if the Social Security tax, currently the most regressive tax in the country--it falls more heavily on lower-income workers than on the wealthy--is raised to include a larger portion of the income of those making over $102,000 per year, it could extend the solvency of the Social Security system into the 22nd Century. (You can read more about Social Security at CEPR's website:

Ultimately, it is Samuelson's misleading perspective on Social Security that is the larger problem. Obama is being criticized for standing outside a perspective that is actually disabling. If the notion that Social Security is in deep trouble and that addressing the deficit is the foremost priority carries the day, government as an investor in working people will be sidelined. But implementing Obama's simple proposal will end the scaremongering about Social Security and create the political space for dealing with more immediate issues, like employment and fair trade agreements, climate change and the high human, political and financial cost of the US occupation in Iraq.

And the deficit? More than manageable if we reduce the annual rate of American military spending, which already exceeds spending by the rest of the world combined.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Last Night

Heart, moon, breath and secrets—
Jackpot of life and
Greater than rubies for a silk-gowned queen—
Invested long ago in goddesses
And mysteries, stories and familiars.
Infrequently, a god on this theory:
If one falls, likely another will rise.

So jewel by jewel dropped or planted like magic beans
In wetlands or pools of courage or an eternity
Of fingertips or tears of fathers
As heart and moon, breath and secrets. Tumbling,
Reflecting, life, joyful and ferocious,
This heart splashes down,
Sinking to the depths of Diana, my fantastic

Huntress across eons and cultures
Light years of difference and no further
Apart than the space between humans;
Which is to say, sometimes no space,
At all, and sometimes like the deaf speaking
In lost tongues. She is elegant in silk, delicate in sheer,
she is fierce and opaque, like the darkness at the end of life
trailing the tigress. Oh, my incomparable

Beauty here to love every soul willing to love back.
And moon falls next to mysteries deep
Become this angel, David, who also loves
The young or old, the robust and the waiting.
And gifts them with wild yearning for
His touch and trades one for another and another,
Until yearning becomes us all, and the job is done. Oh, my sweet,

Isn’t this a terrible delight, the way the swamp gasses glow,
The way breath in aerosol gasps
Becomes clouds of trilling vapor? Stutter, speak,
Desperately sing then, relying on voice and sorcery.
Start and stop and start again until, unhalted,
Shout savage melodious joy, defy the bully thunder,
Contest the wild’s winking rumors, confront its sly cunning.

Oh, finally my writhing, ecstatic secrets go further, go firmer,
Go longer, go sunset to sunrise, go
Sunrise to sunset, glow incandescently
As if to banish trailing shadows,
As the dark of which we spoke
Galloped after the huntress.
And next the tomcat rode

Behind the young, infatuated witch.
What a story that one will be,
But this end arrives and leaves
Nothing for now to say and surprise
That glory would last so long. I’d bow but for the stiffness
Overtaking my once moist and fertile self. Still, my thanks.
You’ve been great.
You are great.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #4

In her Feb. 17 op-ed (“Call Me a Snob…”) Susan Jacoby asserts that we are living through a period characterized by “a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations” and says we ought to begin a national discussion on “the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects.”

But Jacoby doesn’t get us to an adequate starting point. Dumbness, arrogance and a shrinking attention span characterize a rising number of Americans, she claims. Unfortunately, these are not precise analytical terms; they are mere insults.

Perhaps a 1500-word piece does not allow sufficient space to make Jacoby’s point, but surely it’s room enough to at least mention the sustained neglect the American public school system has suffered over the last 30 years. My guess is that single parents with low-wage jobs, two-parent households with both parents in the work force, lack of childcare, crumbling school buildings, lagging teacher salaries, a shift of infrastructure investment from cities to suburbs and from schools to prisons, the increasing cost of higher education and the diminishing availability of need-based college scholarships have much to do with our collective lack of time and preparedness for the discussion Jacoby desires.

Shifting focus to the failures of policy-makers since the Reagan administration to honor and sustain the past achievements and real potential of high-quality universal public education might be a better place to begin that conversation.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

When I Love You

There is fool’s gold
in myself absorbed.
in myself reflected,

in myself,
at whom I stare, rushed
and passionate and finally frozen.
Such futility in this self,

absorbed and dreaming. But there is relief
in the heart of outcasts, relief
in outcasts who have learned to love,
relief in leaving the dreamer behind.

Ambition was the measure of the gap
between reality and me,
dreaming through the distance
I had wandered.

Voice is the sound of me
arrived this day.
And the rich, bloody wave cresting in my chest,
that wish is my dying wish.

Until then, that we have separate rhythms,
that you inspect,
that you see far,
that you give chase,

that you sweat a different blood
is a joy and a bridge.
I am sane when I love you
and love others.

When I bathe in your laughter,
when I linger in your sight,
when we rest in each other’s prayer,
I am safely here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

An Economy and Budget That Works - Part One

An Economy and Federal Budget
That Works for Working Families
What the Next Administration Should Do
Part One

(I’m going to produce my own prescription for economic change in the United States. This section, about health care and military spending, is part one. Later pieces will be about climate change and green jobs, unions, Social Security and more.)

Recessions are commonly experienced in two ways. Economists measure them; working people and their families endure them. The recession that we are in now, precipitated by the bursting of the housing bubble, will get worse. How much worse will be a subject of debate among economists, now and over the next few years.

But workers will not be attempting to measure the recession; they will be trying to live through it. Workers will lose jobs. Unemployed workers will face lengthening periods of unemployment and loss of individual and family health care coverage. Workers with jobs will still get paychecks, but paychecks with diminished purchasing power. And health care costs will keep rising.

Congress and President Bush have passed and signed a stimulus package, but it won’t be enough. It won’t restructure the federal budget, it won’t support the creation of millions of good, green jobs over the long-term, and it won’t lead to universal, affordable health care in the United States. Getting there will require a new president promoting new economic and social policies.

Health Care

A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that ending the role of big drug companies in conducting clinical trials is one way to begin cutting health care costs. The monopoly that big Pharma currently maintains over the data generated from those trials ultimately costs consumers and taxpayers billions. That data, says co-author Dean Baker, rightfully belongs in the public domain and would allow the FDA to make better regulatory decisions and help prevent the wasteful duplications of drug testing and marketing that turns decisions about treatment into competition between drug advertisers.

The study, “The Benefits and Savings from Publicly-Funded Clinical Trials of Prescription Drugs,” released in January, shows that public funding of trials, combined with a mandated reduction of 40 percent in the prices paid for drugs by Medicare (bringing prices in line with those paid by the VA), would save $50 billion over a ten-year period. If state and local governments also had corresponding reductions in the prices paid for prescription drugs, their ten-year savings would be over $120 billion. If these price reductions were applied to the private sector as well, they would total more than $900 billion over the same period.

Such savings would be a big step toward reigning in the escalating costs of health care. It would also end the drug company monopoly over data from trials, making all information available to the FDA, the public and other researchers.

Spending for War and Weapons

Last year, CEPR commissioned Global Insight to do an analysis of the long-term effects of increased military spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That study, “The Economic Impact of the Iraq War and Higher Military Spending,” published in May, showed that an early stimulus provided by that spending would begin to turn negative after five years and worsen in succeeding years.

In other words, the result of spending approximately $135 billion for war in 2003 provided a small immediate stimulus, but will begin to result in job losses in specific sectors of the economy (almost 45,000 lost in manufacturing) by 2008. Continuing war spending worsens the effect—the study projects that by 2013 more than 450,000 jobs will be lost across most sectors of the economy.

Any president trying to make policy that will strengthen the economy and create good jobs will have to deal with the damaging long-term effect of spending for war and supporting a bloated military budget.

Among the worst offenses of the current military budget is the sustained multi-year spending for weapons systems that are inappropriate for the current mission of the military, inefficient and/or faulty. These multi-billion dollar programs are the direct consequence of the revolving door between the Pentagon and defense contractors.

New defense priorities that reduce the overall military budget—the United States currently spends more on the military than the combined spending of the rest of the world—would free hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade for housing, education, public transportation and other infrastructure spending. As things now stand, the U.S. military budget is probably the most effective mechanism ever developed for the transfer of wealth from taxpayers and working families to the executives and shareholders of multi-national corporations. Call that mechanism "tax workers, buy weapons (TWBW)."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Shock & Awe

When I try on another soul
When I lay this body down
When I leave this shell behind
Then I sigh—I sigh with memory

Then I was a gifted sprite
Then I was a fearless thing
Then I was a winsome soul
When I was his wanton wish

Before I was a questing call
Before I was a potent dream
Before I journeyed wildly
Now I am with memories

Now I am with no regrets
Now I am past seeds and flowers
Now I savor scents and echoes
Before I saw this coming

I planned for loving
I planned for fruiting
I planned for ripening
I shocked myself with age

I shocked with warrior words
I shocked with tumult
I shocked with joy
I planned with unexpected cunning

I leapt at life
I leapt at love
I shadowed crowds and lonely voyages
I relished most my bleeding

I relished rampant children
I relished the vigorous climb
I relished the touch of patriarchs
I leapt each awe-filled day

I sigh—I sigh with memory
I mask myself in mourning
I am nova now and burning
And leap, as I expected, to greet for her good-bye

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

President Obama

The results from the Virginia primary make clear that Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. The turnout in Virginia was a record for a primary. Barack's vote total doubled Hillary's and far exceeded the combined total for McCain and Huckabee.

The conclusion that Obama, who is gaining strength with every primary, would win Virginia in the general election seems incontestable. And though Virginia will not be the only state to swing to the Democrats in November, it will be enough.

The notion that he is not tough enough or experienced enough to survive an extended primary season and defeat McCain in November is not credible, either. He is a durable and smart campaigner and his lead advisor, David Axelrod, has proven over and over that he has few peers as a campaign strategist. Barack has other enormous strengths on his team, too, not least of which is Michelle Obama.

The real policy differences between Hillary and Barack are slight, and the idea that the Democrats will somehow melt into disarray during or after a hardfought primary season is easy to allege, but much harder to prove. As time goes on, and as Virginia has already demonstrated, most Clinton voters won't find it very difficult to become Obama supporters.

And regular Democrats will be joined by more young voters, more independents and more disaffected non-voters as Obama-for-President comes to look more like a sweeping movement for change than an election campaign. It is hard to imagine a president who would be more open to grassroots input than Barack is likely to be. Previously committed super-delegates are going to spend more time thinking about how to grab on to Obama's coattails than they will spend considering the consequences of reneging on an earlier pledge to support Clinton.

Obama may not win as many states as Lyndon Johnson did in his 1964 trouncing of Barry Goldwater, but he may defeat McCain almost as decisively. One of the larger challenges for Barack will be to avoid the appearance of planning the details of his administration too soon. But frankly nothing is more appealing, at this point, than thinking about how universal health care, demilitarization and green jobs will develop under President Obama.

Jeff Epton