America’s Real Occupiers

Public officials who remove themselves and their families from the community they govern.

David Sirota

Denver Public School Superintendent Tom Boasberg. (Image from ednewscolorado.org)

Last week, my local twit­ter­sphere momen­tar­i­ly erupt­ed with alle­ga­tions that Denver’s pub­lic school super­in­ten­dent, Tom Boas­berg, is send­ing his kids to a pri­vate school that eschews high-stakes test­ing. Boas­berg, an icon of the nation­al move­ment push­ing high-stakes test­ing and under­min­ing tra­di­tion­al pub­lic edu­ca­tion, even­tu­al­ly defend­ed him­self by insist­ing that his kids attend­ed that spe­cial school only dur­ing pre-school and that they now attend a pub­lic school. Yet his spokesman admit­ted that the school is not in Den­ver but in Boul­der, Colo., one of America’s wealth­i­est enclaves.

There really are "Two Americas," as the saying goes—and that's no accident.

Boas­berg, you see, refus­es to live in the dis­trict that he gov­erns. Though hav­ing no back­ground in edu­ca­tion admin­is­tra­tion, this long­time tele­com exec­u­tive used his con­nec­tions to get appoint­ed Den­ver super­in­ten­dent, and he now acts like a king. From the con­fines of his dis­tant cas­tle in Boul­der, he issues edicts to his low-income fief­dom – decrees demo­niz­ing teach­ers’ unions, shut­ting down neigh­bor­hood schools over com­mu­ni­ty objec­tions and pro­mot­ing pri­vate­ly admin­is­tered char­ter schools. Mean­while, he makes sure his own roy­al fam­i­ly is insu­lat­ed in a wealthy dis­trict that doesn’t expe­ri­ence his destruc­tive policies.

No doubt this is but a micro­cos­mic sto­ry in a coun­try whose patri­cian over­lords are reg­u­lar­ly con­jur­ing the feu­dal­ism of Europe cir­ca the Mid­dle Ages. Today, our may­ors deploy police against home­less peo­ple and pro­tes­tors; our gov­er­nors demand crush­ing bud­get cuts from the con­fines of their tax­pay­er-fund­ed man­sions; our Con­gress exempts itself from insid­er-trad­ing laws and pro­vides itself health care ben­e­fits denied to oth­ers; and our nation’s cap­i­tal has become one of the world’s wealth­i­est cities, despite the recession.

Tak­en togeth­er, we see that there real­ly are Two Amer­i­c­as,” as the say­ing goes – and that’s no acci­dent. It’s the result of a per­ma­nent elite that is remov­ing itself from the rest of the nation. Nowhere is this more obvi­ous than in edu­ca­tion – a realm in which this elite phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rates itself from us mere serfs. As the head of one of the country’s largest urban school dis­tricts, Boas­berg is a per­fect exam­ple of this – but he is only one example.

The Wash­ing­ton Post, for instance, notes that it has become an unques­tioned tra­di­tion among Washington’s pow­er elite” – read: elect­ed offi­cials – to send their kids to the ultra-expen­sive pri­vate school Sid­well Friends. At the same time, many of these offi­cials have backed bud­get poli­cies that weak­en pub­lic education.

Out­side of Wash­ing­ton, it’s often same sto­ry; as just two recent exam­ples, both New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie ® and Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel have cham­pi­oned mas­sive cuts to pub­lic edu­ca­tion while send­ing their kids to pri­vate school.

In many cas­es, these aris­to­crats aren’t even required to pub­licly explain them­selves. (Boas­berg, for exam­ple, is nev­er hound­ed by local media about why he refus­es to live in Den­ver.) Worse, on the rare occa­sions that ques­tions are posed, pri­va­cy is the oft-used excuse to not answer, whether it’s Oba­ma defend­ers dis­miss­ing queries about their Sid­well deci­sion, Christie telling a vot­er his school choic­es are none of your busi­ness” or Emanuel storm­ing out of a tele­vi­sion inter­view and then cit­ing his pri­vate life” when asked about the issue.

This might be a con­vinc­ing argu­ment about ordi­nary cit­i­zens’ per­son­al edu­ca­tion choic­es, but it’s an insult com­ing from pub­lic offi­cials. When they remove them­selves and their fam­i­lies from a com­mu­ni­ty – but still retain pow­er over that com­mu­ni­ty – they end up act­ing as for­eign occu­piers, sub­ject­ing us to poli­cies they would nev­er sub­ject their own kin to.

Pre­tend­ing this is accept­able or just a pri­vate” deci­sion, then, is to tol­er­ate ancient, rul­ing-class notions that are no longer sus­tain­able in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Indeed, if this nation is going to remain a mod­ern repub­lic, it can’t also be a medieval oli­garchy – no mat­ter how much America’s elite wants to keep gov­ern­ing from behind the palace walls.

David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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