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John Thompson, a retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, has written frequently about events in his state for this blog. Here, he describes the political coercion that determined right-wingers are promoting in Oklahoma and calling it “choice.” From his description, some Republican legislators are worried about “liberal indoctrination,” transgender students using the “wrong” bathroom, litter boxes for children who think they are cats (this seems to be a QAnon idea), and the danger of “social-emotional learning.” Apparently students in Oklahoma have no social or emotional issues.

Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s newly elected, extreme rightwing Secretary of Education, first says that “the state should have the ‘most comprehensive school choice in the country.’” Secondly, Walters pushes the rightwing Michigan-based Hillsdale College curriculum; he doesn’t want to allow schools to choose to retain research-based curriculums that he identifies as “liberal indoctrination.” As Clark Frailey, executive director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, says, Walters seems to be pushing for “Christian Dominionism,” which is “based on the philosophy that Christianity is at the core of America’s foundation and all institutions need to align with that viewpoint. If people won’t convert, then a government religion must be forced upon them.”

Two voucher programs for private schools and homeschools have been filed. The most interesting one is Sen. Shane Jett’s Oklahoma Parent Empowerment Act for Kids (PEAK). Even extremely conservative Republicans legislators worry that vouchers would undermine the finances of their rural schools. Jett seems to be offering a carrot and a stick to those vulnerable constituencies. He would impose vouchers only in counties with a population of more than 10,000 people. But, vouchers would be offered in counties with fewer than 10,000 residents if they are served by a “trigger district.”

The Oklahoman then reports:

Jett defined a “trigger district” as a public school system that allows or tolerates House Bill 1775 violations, use of school bathrooms according to gender identity, anthropomorphic behavior known as “furries,” disparagement of the oil and gas industry, lesson plans promoting social-emotional learning and animal rights activism, among other topics.

In other words, the bill would coerce schools into “choosing” to comply with the entire extremist agenda. But that begs the question about how educators would choose to deal with today’s threats to public education. Republican Sen. Adam Pugh’s newly revealed plan for school improvement was based on meetings with 200 public school superintendents; every college president in Oklahoma; and “hundreds, if not thousands” teachers and parents and advocacy groups.  Based on these listening sessions, Pugh did not propose vouchers.

Pugh’s plan would raise teacher pay so the minimum starting salary was $40,000, “with graduated raises to the minimum salary schedule based on longevity.” The estimated cost would be $241 million, which is less than the cost of Sen. Julie Daniels’ voucher bill ($275 million). They would  also create an “Oklahoma Teacher Corps” and a teacher mentoring system;  provide certain teachers at least 12 weeks of maternity leave; update the school funding formula, and pass Pugh’s seven other constructive reforms. 

As Pugh explained, “I hope this plan will demonstrate to teachers that we’re serious about the work that you do, and we appreciate how you pour your heart and your soul into educating kids, as we need you to stay in the classroom, and we need more of you.”

But, the Stillwater News Press offers an equally important response:

While that offers us a bit of a sigh of relief, Oklahomans should be aware that the push [to] move taxpayer money into private schools isn’t going anywhere. It’s a well-funded campaign and the state’s administrators and board members have been handpicked to make that a top priority.

I’m afraid I agree with the Stillwater News. Pugh’s bills raise hope. But Oklahoma Republicans will continue to coerce schools into compliance with their extremist privatization and Christian Dominionism ideologies – and call it “choice.”

On the other hand, more Republicans sound like they are getting fed up by Walters and his minions. This week, the Secretary of Education was supposed to present a budget to a legislative subcommittee for planning purposes, but a letter obtained by the Tulsa World shows that Walters seems to be prioritizing “ridding public education of ‘liberal indoctrination.’” Walters’ “spokesman” said he “has requested additional information on diversity, equity, inclusion programs (DEI) to fully understand the extent of indoctrination happening in higher education.”

The letter said:

Please provide a full outline and review of every dollar that has been spent over the last 10 years on diversity, equity, inclusion. Additionally, I want an overview of your staffing and the colleges underneath your oversight as the Chancellor of Oklahoma Higher Regents within every DEI program … and expenditures,” Walters wrote on letterhead of the Office of the Secretary of Education. “Lastly, please provide a copy of the materials that are being used in any of these programs.”

Neither has Walters followed legislative norms for presenting a public education budget. As Nondoc reported, Walters said he instituted a hiring freeze and a spending freeze for the State Department of Education when he took office and all related decisions require his approval. And, in addition to demanding vouchers, he has insisted on any teacher pay raise being performance-based. Above all, Walters said he would be bringing a completely different budget than the one his predecessor drafted. 

Republican Toni Hasenbeck (R-Elgin) responded saying, “district superintendents had expressed concern for ‘the next four years’” because of Walters’ campaign comments. Rep. Dell Kerbs, (R-Shawnee) commented, “I don’t need elevator speeches. I need details.” Subcommittee Chairman Mark McBride (R-Moore) understood the argument that performance pay could be a part of teacher pay, but he said that Walters’ plan went too far. And then he tried to get Walters back to the normative procedures which the subcommittee follows for helping craft funding priorities.

McBride “interrupted Walters,” and asked, “Are you saying the budget will totally change — you’re presenting a budget that’s not going to be the same budget, and you’re going to totally change it?”

Nondoc reported that “McBride seemed confused and paused for a moment.” When Walters tried to change the subject, [McBride] interrupted him and asked why Walters was presenting a budget that would not exist in a week. Walters again changed the subject and, as Nondoc reported, “McBride interrupted him again, asking him to stay on topic presenting monetary figures rather than discussing policy and slipping into “campaign rhetoric.” McBride said, “With all due respect, I need the performance review for last year. That’s what you’re here to present.” Then, after that interruption, Walters stopped his presentation.

 After the meeting, Matt Langston, Walters’s “spokesman” (a paid GOP consultant based in Texas) said, “Not one person in Oklahoma is surprised that Democrats are unhappy with the political theater that was orchestrated today.” According to Langston:

They do not want transparency, accountability or even basic reform because they are used to playing in the shadows. Union bosses, whining and liberal tears will not stop education reform, and the superintendent is looking forward to next week’s actual budget hearing.

Stay tuned! When Walters reveals his budget, chaos and vitriol will increase, and we’ll see whether Walters really believes he can implement his promise or “suggestion,” that “received some pushback from lawmakers in 2022,” a ten-year plan to reject all federal spending on education

John Thompson is a historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma. He is also a meticulous researcher. Emily Oster is an economist at Brown University who said early in the pandemic that it was safe to open schools.

Thompson writes:

New post on Network for Public Education.

John Thompson: COVID and Schools

John Thompson takes a look at Emily Oster’s crusade to get school buildings open.

He writes:

When I started following Emily Oster’s links and critiquing her analyses of COVID in schools, I first worried about her simplistic conclusions such as, “The evidence is pointing in one direction. Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19.” Since Diane Ravitch posted on epidemiologists Abigail Cartus’ and Justin Feldman’s research, I better understand where Oster was coming from, and how “Oster’s emphasis on individualism and personal choice ring sweetly in the ears of the rightwing philanthropists.”

Oster went “viral” when arguing that educators’ fears were “overblown,” and that kids are “simply very unlikely to be infected.” But, as she made those claims, Oster ignored evidence that schools were significant spreaders, such as the CDC’s summaryof Wisconsin infections from Sept 3 to Nov16, 2020. That state’s schools were the 4th largest source of infections, following long term care and corrections facilities, and colleges; an estimated 14% of infections were linked to schools.

On the eves of Thanksgivings, when common sense said that holiday surges through Christmas and the New Year would be inevitable, Oster would double down on attacks on educators for not immediately reopening classrooms.As Rachel Cohenexplained, Oster’s 2020 data “reflected an extremely small and unrepresentative sample of schools.” There was not a single urban traditional public school reporting data across 27 states in her dataset, including from Florida [and] Texas…” Then, in November, Texas became the first state to have a million infections.

Worse, Cohen reported, “Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health data scientist who says she was fired in May over a refusal to manipulate her state’s COVID-19 stats, has publicly pushed back on Oster’s claims.” Jones “offered Oster full and free access to their data. ‘But she [Oster] basically decided to just pick what data she wanted, not what’s available.’” Jones added, “‘It’s offensive to researchers, when you see something so unabashedly unscientific, and when the opportunity to do something scientific was there.’”

Before long, I worried that Oster, an economist, was following in the path of economists who didn’t know what they didn’t about public schools and didn’t listen to educators regarding the flaws in their data-driven corporate school reforms. For instance, Oster seemed to disregard about 20% of the U.S. population [who] lived in homes with at least two adult generations or grandparents and grandchildren under 25 in 2016, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Research Center. And the dangers of spreading COVID from students to older family members was greater in low-income Black and Brown households.

Also, Oster ignored qualifications made by researchers, such as the Duke University study finding that masks can minimize the spread in schools. Inresponse to my questions on methodology, co-author Daniel Benjamin volunteered what it takes to safely reopen schools:

Is that there is 99% mask compliance for every person in the mainstream curriculum that steps on school property. It’s the mitigation strategies—distancing, masking, hand hygiene that are crucially important. If a school district does not do these things, they will likely make the pandemic worse by being open. This is why we don’t advise “you should open” or “you should go remote”…. It’s all about the public health measures.

At that time, I worried about Gov. Ron DeSantis and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt citing Oster while pressuring schools to open up and drop protections. Neither did I understand why more journalists were not challenging her misuse of sources, and her repeated attacks on teachers unions, especially in publications funded by the Billionaires Boys Club. I sensed Oster’s methodology would cost lives. But, I didn’t want to prejudge researchers at a time when lives were on the line, so I didn’t connect the dots.

But Cartus and Feldman connect the dots and write about Oster’s important role in making:

The “data-driven” case for peeling away successive layers of COVID mitigations: first ending remote instruction in favor of hybrid learning, then ending hybrid learning in favor of a full return to in-person instruction, then eliminating quarantine for those exposed to the virus. … Her vision for schooling during the pandemic ultimately involves abandoning universal public health measures altogether, turning masking and vaccination into individual, personal choices.

Cartus and Feldman address my question why her work “attracted little scrutiny.” It was more than journalists and experts being unaware of the differences between the highest poverty schools and the schools their children attend. Most importantly her work:

Has been funded since last summer by organizations that,without exception, have explicit commitments to opposing teacher’s unions, supporting charter schools, and expanding corporate freedom. In addition to grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation, and Arnold Ventures, Oster has received funding from far-right billionaire Peter Thiel. The Thiel grant awarded to Oster was administered by the Mercatus Center, the think tank founded and financed by the Koch family.

Cartus and Feldman went deeper than I did in explaining the damage that Oster prompted. For instance, in her “2020 article in The Atlantic, ‘Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders,’ Oster “assured readers in no uncertain terms that COVID transmission simply did not occur in schools at a rate that would necessitate closures.” But the analysis underlying the piece “drew on a sample of miniscule size—a mere two weeks of school data, reported in the second half of September 2020.” The sample was also biased by the fact that it was collected only from schools voluntarily participating in the Dashboard.

Cartus and Feldman then noted what so many journalists ignored, “The second half of September 2020 coincided with the very beginning of a national uptick in cases that would eventually become the punishing surge of winter 2020-21.”

When the press mostly failed to investigate the red flags that Oster’s work should have raised, “it became an article of faith that the laws of physics governing viral transmission don’t apply to schools, even as evidence of in-school viral transmission has mounted throughout the pandemic.”

Oster et.al’s “declarations of victory ignore[d] a growing body of research that has found schools contribute substantially to community coronavirus transmission, especially in the absence of adequate mitigation. The proclamation of “choice” that she justifies is really:

The ‘choice” to cast off obligations to others: the permission she offers affluent parents to disengage from the social contract. While the privileged seek a return to normalcy—or some sicker, poorer approximation of it—COVID will continue to infect and kill the working class and people of color at disproportionate rates.”

Now, history may be repeating itself. To quote National Public Radio, “People say they are done with COVID, but COVID is not done with us.” When we take stock of the interrelated harm done by anti-vaxers, anti-maskers, rightwingers, and their funders, as well as mistakes made by the CDC, we must draw upon Cartus’ and Feldman’s first draft of the history Emily Oster’s stardom.

You can view the post at this link : https://networkforpubliceducation.org/blog-content/john-thompson-covid-and-schools/

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John Thompson is a historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma. In this post, which appeared on the Network for Public Education blog, he reflects on history, the recent past, and the events that brought us here.

Network For Public Education

He writes:

How do we make sense of the last six years, and how do we figure out what we do next?

I’m wrestling with the dilemmas intertwined with the wisdom of Michelle Obama: When they go low, We go high.

To go high, we must wrestle with the irrational and anti-Semitic statements of Kanye West. We must confront the MAGA right wing propaganda while also responding to his words, “Hurt people hurt people – and I was hurt.”

I was born in the middle of the luckiest generation in history. My first memory is a metaphor for the opportunities that were bestowed on Baby Boomers, that have been in decline. I was “twaddling” across the living room to the “win-dome” when adults were watching television, and they exploded with joy. The news, I was told later, was that the polio vaccine had been released!

Our parents’ generation survived the Great Depression and World War II, they were committed to our generation having far greater opportunities. Time after time, when I walked somewhere, worked with neighbors, and played with their children, I found one mentor after another. I was repeatedly told, “Pay close attention, I’ll only show you once;” reminded that my job at school wasn’t high grades but “Learning how to learn;” and “Your job is to be ‘inner-directed’ not ‘outer-directed’” like those who were “like the Red River, ‘a mile wide and a foot deep.’”

Of course, we felt the uneasiness of neighbors watching the Sputnik satellite cross the night sky, of “duck and cover” drills at school, and the Cuban Missile crisis (which only affected me by the news alerts interrupting the World Series.)

And I was clueless about Jim Crow until we went to a restaurant during the Sit-In movement. The owner directed us to the fancy room where, that evening, prices were not higher than the big serving area, because we shouldn’t have to eat with N—–rs. We shouted to our parents, “You’re not supposed to say that word! Why did he say that word?” My dad tried to remain calm but he exploded, “there’s not a god-damned reason” and tore into the racist owner. It took the full police line to pull my dad off him.

Of course, Oklahoma was incredibly corrupt and my dad would jokingly point out concrete examples such as “the road to Nowhere” (which led to our top oligarch’s property,) the Turner Turnpike, and the photo at church of a Supreme Court Justice who was convicted of bribery in conjunction to with the turnpike and other cases. But, as I began to lobby and/or interview members of the “Greatest Generation,” I realized that that criminal behavior was far more common back then, but their handshakes had to be good. In the last few decades, I asked powerful people if corruption had declined significantly, and whether norms have also dropped. They agreed but, a decade ago, a State Auditor added a disclaimer; so many behaviors by elites that used to be felonies were now legal.

And that gets us to the intertwined forces of the last fifty years that laid the foundation for Trumpism. In the 1970s, rightwing think tanks sold the theory that corporations were only beholden to the share owners, not the stakeholders, the community, and the United States of America. Then, the Reagan administration’s Supply Side Economics quickly wiped out good-paying industrial jobs, which undermined communities, especially in places like rural Oklahoma which became Trumpland.

As the economic pie became more unequal, more hurt people hurt people. The willingness to share declined. And, eventually, hope declined, and life expectancy dropped for whites who hadn’t attended college, especially in places like eastern Oklahoma.

Rightwing spin masters convinced rural Oklahomans that Reagan “brought America back,” and immigrants and people of color “cut in line” in front of whites. I plead guilty to being slow to admit the importance of racism in fueling Trumpism. My wife and I have had an Obama bumper sticker on our car since 2008. I don’t recall any rudeness by Oklahomans in response to it. As soon as we crossed into Texas, and many other states, we’d be shouted at and given the finger.

Since my family came from “Little Dixie,” I was embarrassingly slow in admitting why counties in Southeast Oklahoma instantly turned Republican between 2006 and the 2008 presidential race. Similarly, Oklahoma passed one of the nation’s most punitive immigration laws, and I’d seen large numbers of attacks on Hispanics in our high school. But in my experience, Oklahomans also respected the work ethic and family values of immigrants. I saw our welcoming side until, surprise!, the nonstop anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Muslim propaganda sunk in.

While acknowledging my excessive optimism, I believe we can build on our strengths – the values that gave so much hope to this young Baby Boomer. Given my experience as an inner-city teacher, I will draw on my students’ moral cores. But I see those experiences as metaphors for how we can “go high” when reversing a full range of interconnected economic, social, political, and civility challenges.

Starting with economics, the worship of Free Markets began with Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” Corporate school reformers (like other true believers in the Market) adopted the same mindset, which they called “creative disruption” as the lever for transforming schools and rebuilding them through “venture philanthropy.” They became very skilled at “kicking down the barn,” and attacking teachers, hoping to quickly fire enough teachers (especially Baby Boomers) while training young teachers to obey top-down, teach-to-the-test mandates.

But, both sides of the “Teacher Wars” were bipartisan. Up until three or four years ago, I was very successful working with conservative Republicans who also didn’t trust the “Billionaires Boys Club” which dominated the Bush and Obama education policies. And many or most were angry at other big corporations.

If we could admit that neither Democrats or Republicans stood up to our neoliberal and their conservative funders, we could restart conversations about schools as a public good, not just a Free Market experiment. Then, maybe we could discuss the privatization of health care, the social safety net, and the other institutions on Gov. Stitt’s and other MAGA’s hit list.

Hopefully, Democrats and Republicans could join together in community building; the first step could be full-service community schools, which could also serve as community hubs. We could admit that both sides bought into the simplistic, false meme that teachers, alone, could drive transformative change of our highest-challenge schools.

Of course, teachers deserve more respect. But so do cafeteria ladies, bus drivers, counselors, tutors, parent liaisons, mentors, apprentices, and volunteers. And, sharing the respect and the credit with education teams will also create good will that would assist the dialogue we need.

As the MAGA Republicans ramp up the campaigns for vouchers, we will have new opportunities for bridging differences with rural areas. And, students can lead the way in explaining that accusations of spreading Critical Race Theory and Socialist propaganda are false.

In the late 1990s, during a community discussion about public health, my students asked white participants about the more humane way that Meth, as opposed to crack, was being handled. Perhaps because the students were so polite, the adults didn’t understand that the teenagers were contrasting the cruelty of the War on Drugs during the crack epidemic with the more empathetic public health response to the new, predominantly white epidemic. Afterwards, they told me that the white participants didn’t understand what they were saying, but they had hope for future conversations and, at least, the more humane response to Meth was a first step.

A decade later, Big Pharma profited by promoting Opioid addiction in the MAGA areas, significantly lowering life expectancy for under-educated whites. Rather than condemning “deplorables,” we should have recognized that “Hurt people hurt People.” Now, it won’t be easy, but perhaps we could unite, regulate, and control the corporate dominance that is spreading destruction across the world.

Finally, we must move on from the failed experiment of Creative Disruption. We should build on both, social and cognitive science, as well as what has worked for centuries. After all, teaching is an act of love. Neighborliness can be the driving force for community schools. Defending our children’s schools, as well as privatization battles ranging from public health to global warming, will require cross-generational, cross-cultural discussions. When they go low, we should go high by bringing the full diversity of our communities into schools, and bringing students out into the full diversity of our community.

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Oklahoma, like many other conservative states, passed a law to restrict teaching about racism and other controversial subjects. John Thompson, a historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, thinks that high school students should learn about and debate historical events. He wrote this post for the blog.

After Part I of Ken Burns’ The United States and the Holocaust was shown on PBS, I wrote a review calling for the documentary and its website to be taught in high school. As the three-part series progressed, I became more stunned by the information I had never been taught. Afterwards, conversing with neighbors and strangers, and ten lawyers, the virtually unanimous response I heard was a) The United States and the Holocaust must be taught in every Oklahoma high school, and b) because of HB 1775, educators won’t dare to do so.

I also tried to communicate with ten school systems and education institutions, but received no responses. In fairness, it is unlikely that districts would take a stand before studying the legal and political issues regarding the use of Burns’ work in the classroom.

Of course, I had known that Adolf Hitler patterned his crimes against humanity after America’s eugenics movement. But I hadn’t realized how much Hitler had studied its false claims that people of color were biologically inferior, as well as borrowed lessons from the genocide of Native Americans, the Ku Klux Klan, and Jim Crow. Similarly, I had read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and it seems unlikely that an Oklahoma teacher would be fired for violating HB 1775 by teaching about her the way it has normally been taught. But Burns tells the long story that has not been recognized. Even though the wording of HB 1775 doesn’t seem to ban The United States and the Holocaust from high school classrooms, it is widely assumed that teaching it would be too risky.

Burns tells how the United States State Department repeatedly tightened regulations designed to prevent Jews from escaping to the United States. The Frank family, like hundreds of thousands of Jews, was murdered after years of being excluded from the U.S.

A subsequent review by Diane Ravitch of Part II, explained how a million Jews were murdered by December, 1941 when the U.S. entered the war. She concluded, I believe correctly, that “This series should be shown to high school students in every school in the U.S.In my first review, I concentrated on why and how Oklahoma educators and supporters of public schools should unite in teaching Burns’ film, and his standards-driven lessons. Part III further convinced me that the stakes are too high to allow Burns’ work to be pushed out of high schools. We must find a way to take a stand. All I know for sure, however, is that it will require careful planning and conversations between teachers and administrators; patrons; and political and community leaders.

We must make it clear that Burns affirms that there is plenty that is great about our democracy, and we must also focus on the heroism of anti-Nazi volunteers and key governmental leaders. He appropriately praises the military and other Americans for winning World War II, and thus putting an end to the Holocaust. Burns explains the logistics and technological limitations that would have made it hard to bomb the railroads to the concentration camps. But he also discusses the extreme anti-Semitism and how, in 1938, 2/3rds of Americans wanted to keep German, Austrian, and “other political refugees” out of the U.S., thus undermining President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to rescue as many as possible.

This piece will focus on two narratives that Burns uses to illustrate why this complicated history must be taught. And then it summarizes his belief that today it is doubly important that students are taught uncomfortable truths about the genocide of six million Jews.

First, Burns reviews the U.S State Department’s history of racism and its opposition to admitting Jews and Southern European immigrants, as opposed to the Northern Europeans they welcomed. For instance, in1939, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize, led the infamous effort to block the St. Louis, a German ocean liner trying to transport 936 Jews seeking asylum to America.

In 1940, Asst. Secretary of State Breckinridge Long “wrote that consular officers should “put every obstacle in the way [to] “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.” As it was later learned, Long tried to stop intelligence about mass murder from reaching the United States.

After the U.S. had been at war with Nazis for two years, and a grass roots effort by Americans putting their lives at risk when saving tens of thousands from genocide, the truth was clear. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. finally was able to prove to President Roosevelt that the State Department was lying, and Long had been hiding the facts and the plans for rescuing refugees through southeastern and southwestern Europe.

Long resigned and FDR created the Wartime Refugee Board (WRB). The hero of the rescues that the State Department had undermined, John Pehle, was named the WRB director. The WRB helped to save up to 200,000 Jews, but Pehle said their effort was “little and late.”

The second story was about the initiative General Dwight Eisenhower started in order to inform the world about what happened in the concentration camps. First, he required soldiers and German civilians to walk through the concentration camps and see the piles of bodies. He then asked General George Marshall to bring members of Congress and journalists to the newly liberated camps “so that they could convey the horrible truth about Nazi atrocities to the American public.” Within days, they began to bear witness to Nazi crimes in the camps.”

And that leads to the question that Burns’ website recommends, “Although the images and videos shown in the last clip are very challenging to watch, why do you think U.S. Army leaders said they needed to be shown to people in the United States and across the world?”

In the last five minutes, The United States and the Holocaust returns to the reason why Burns and his team started to make this film in 2015. This was before Charlottesville, the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and at the supermarket in Buffalo, and before the January 6th insurrection. But they saw a similarity to “fragility of civilized behavior” that had existed in Germany. For instance, in the late 1920’s, Berlin was perhaps “the most open and cosmopolitan city in Europe” but only four years later, the Nazis were in charge.

This propelled Burns to reveal the full range of Americans’ actions and inactions. His research showed how quickly societies can spin out of control. Burns concluded that we must learn from the past in order to better deal with today’s “fragility of democratic civilization all over the world, not just here.”

Today, supporters of HB 1775 seem to argue that discussing today’s conflicts in the context of the dark chapters of American history is politicizing classroom instruction. Burns, however, rejects the practice of keeping students in the dark about past and present threats to democracy. Cross-generational conversations about The United States and the Holocaust could be a significant step towards bringing America together.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, posts his reaction to the first episode of the new series by Ken Burns, Sarah Botstein, and Lynn Novick: “The U.S. and the Holocaust.”

I just watched the second episode, and it is very powerful. Burns has said that this is the most important documentary he has ever made.

The U.S. made almost no effort to open its doors to Jews trying to escape Hitler’s killing machine. Why? For one thing, the American public was deeply anti-Semitic. For another, the leaders of the U.S. State Department were anti-Semites.

The Ku Klux Klan sprang back to life. The heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh, who admired Hitler, was a leader of the infamous “America First” movement, which opposed our entry into the war and was certain that Hitler would conquer all of Europe. Henry Ford was a virulent anti-Semite, whose publication printed the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

This series is MUST viewing. It clears away the cobwebs of lies propagated by rightwingers who want to cleanse the schools of the dark side of U.S. history. Hate, bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism are woven into our history.

Thompson writes:

Ken Burns’ The U.S and the Holocaust is being shown on PBS. It begins with a jolt: telling how Anne Frank and her family were denied entry to the U.S. As our country denied entry to the vast majority of Jews threatened by Adolf Hitler, 1 million were murdered. Episode One helps us understand why President Franklin Roosevelt and other leaders were unable to persuade the American public to support assistance to Jews fleeing Nazism.

Of course, there is plenty that is great about our democracy, but our histories of the genocide of Native Americans and Slavery, as well as eugenics and its false claims that people of color were biologically inferior, contributed to our failure to respond appropriately. In fact, Hitler patterned his crimes against humanity after America’s eugenics movement, the genocide of Native Americans, the Ku Klux Klan, and Jim Crow. During the Great Depression, more than 1 million people of Mexican ancestry were expelled even though more than 60 percent of them were born in the U.S. And, even before American Fascists like Father Coughlin and Henry Ford ramped up hatred of Jews and advocated for pro-Nazi policies, the U.S. had a long history of violent anti-Semitism.

Ken Burns and his team started to make this film in 2015, before Charlottesville, the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and at the supermarket in Buffalo, and before the January 6th insurrection. A similar “fragility of civilized behavior” was also on display in Berlin under Hitler. In the late 1920’s it was one of “the most open and cosmopolitan city in Europe” but four years later, the Nazis were in charge. What lessons can we learn from that past which could inform today’s “fragility of democratic civilization all over the world, not just here?”

The U.S. and the Holocaust also raises questions such as “what are the responsibilities of our leaders to shape public opinion rather than follow it?” and “what does this history tell us about the role of individuals to act when governments fail to intervene?” It also raises tough questions about the role of the media in spreading hate, as well as constructive information.

The film’s website also links to Oklahoma’s and other states’ Academic Standards. They call for high school students to “examine the causes, series of events and effects of the Holocaust through eyewitnesses such as inmates, survivors, liberators, and perpetrators,” and examine the “rise of totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, and Japan.” Such Standards also call for an examination of “how the media we consume shapes our beliefs, opinions, and actions both historically and in modern contexts in this media.”

These Standards are very consistent with the concepts that Burns explored. If I were still teaching high school, I’d be carefully building a unit that follows the Standards and instructional techniques that were carefully prepared by state and national experts. For instance, I would begin with the recommended, first question, “Why do you think many people did not question or push back against the harmful ideas presented by people who believed in eugenics?”

As also recommended, as students watched video clips, and read and analyzed the primary source materials in The U.S. and the Holocaust website, I’d ask them to share their “feelings or thoughts after each clip as some of the content covered is very heavy and may be emotional for students.” Students would take notes and engage in classroom discussions. I’d end with the recommended question, “Although the images and videos shown in the last clip are very challenging to watch, why do you think U.S. Army leaders said they needed to be shown to people in the United States and across the world?”

I would try to repeat the previously successful practice of inviting legislators, state officials, business and political leaders to the lessons so they could witness the dignity and wisdom of my students at John Marshall, Centennial, and other high-challenge schools. As recently as four years ago when I guest-taught and/or engaged with very conservative Republicans, I knew the discussions would be civil and enlightening. Now, I know such communications would be different, and that I might get fired for violating HB1775.

But the consequences for teachers are nothing like the suffering of victims of the Holocaust or the potential destruction due to the failure to stand up for democratic and educational principles. So, I would also ask what would happen if thousands of educators would stand for our students and teach Ken Burns’ film and website. They would need to thoughtfully plan the process, hopefully working with school system administrators. Many or most of whom would have a long history of opposing censorships of books such as Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” but who are intimidated by bills like HB 1775 and similar censorship laws in other states. Educators would almost certainly have to seek the backing of parents and community leaders.

Educators who are too frightened to use Burns’ work, could at least borrow from SummerBoismier, whose teacher certification is being threatened for linking to the Brooklyn Library, and post links to his and PBS’s websites. Or they could organize off-campus community films or read-aloud events (such as the “Banned Book Read Out” at OKC’s First Unitarian Church) for students and/or provide information on The U.S. and the Holocaust to students when they enter the building.

Such efforts would be terrifying if done alone. But would legislators who voted for censorship of school curriculums want to admit out loud that they want Anne Frank’s story banned? And would even the most extreme legislators follow through with mass firings at a time of teacher shortages? We must wrestle with Burn’s question about whether so many millions of people from all nations would have quickly abandoned democracy and humanity if there had been more resistance to Hitler in the U.S. and across the world before Nazism took control in so many places?


As Ms. Boismeir concluded, “you have a choice to make for the future of our state and the state of our public schools: a politics of inclusion or exclusion. So what’s your story? What side are you on?

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews Dana Milbank’s new book about the crackup of the Republican Party. As I have often said, Milbank is my favorite columnist in the Washington Post.

Thompson writes:

Dana Milbank’s The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party is based on his quarter of a century of political reporting. From 1992 to the present the Republicans won the popular vote only once. There were calls for diversity in their party in order to reach more voters, but it went in the opposite direction. In the 1990s, the false and polarizing propaganda of Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Sean Hannity, and Fox News took off, as Newt Gingrich became the key political driver of an ideology that would dismantle legislative norms and institutions.

This piece only has room for a brief overview of the 90s. I assume that readers will see and will be shocked by the cruelty and lies of that decade, and how they foreshadow today’s assaults on democracy.

Milbank starts with the suicide of the Clintons’ aide, Vince Foster. Rush Limbaugh, who called the 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton “the White House dog,” claimed, “Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton.”

The prime donor of Gingrich’s political training organization, the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) was Mellon Scaife. Scaife then joined with Christopher Ruddy, who would become Donald Trump’s friend and informal advisor, to found Newsmax. They said Vince Foster’s death showed that Bill Clinton “can order people done away with … God there must be 60 people who have died mysteriously.” (By the way, such words didn’t keep Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating or Congressman J.C. Watts from helping to lead GOPAC.)

Brett Kavanaugh, who assisted in Ken Starr’s investigations of Bill Clinton and helped draft the Starr Report, knew as early as 1995 that “I am satisfied that Foster was sufficiently discouraged or depressed to commit suicide.” But he spent two years investigating, thus legitimizing, what Milbank called “all of the ludicrous claims.” In Kavanaugh’s files, that were released two decades later, were 195 pages of articles by Ruddy and Limbaugh’s transcript on the case.

Milbank writes that once Gingrich became Speaker of House in 1995, he “threw the weight of the speakership behind the Foster conspiracy theory.” That year, Ruddy, Scaife and Newsmax, would spread the lies further.

(By 2016, Rep. Pete Olson said that Bill Clinton admitted to A.G. Loretta Lynch that “we killed Vince Foster.” And Trump said the charges that Foster was murdered are “very serious.” And Milbank concluded that Justice Kavanaugh was not the most ideological of the Supreme Court’s majority, but he was the most political.)

Milbank explains how rightwingers encouraged violence. After the Waco tragedy of 1993, G. Gordon Liddy said of the ATF agents, “Kill the son-of-a-bitches.” Sen. Jesse Helms said “Mr. Clinton better watch his guard if he comes down here (North Carolina). He’d better have a bodyguard.”

Moreover, even though the Fish and Wildlife Department didn’t have helicopters, Rep. Helen Chenoweth said they were “sending armed agency officials and helicopters” to enforce regulations and “if they didn’t stop, I will be their “worst nightmare.”

In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Building killed 168 people; Timothy McVeigh said his terrorist act was designed “to put a check on government abuse of power.” But some rightwingers claimed the bombing “was really a botched plot” by the FBI.

Also, Limbaugh asserted, “President Clinton’s ties to the domestic terrorism of Oklahoma City are tangible.” And Gingrich responded by defending the “genuine fears” of rural America regarding the federal government, and doubled down on repealing of the assault weapons ban.

Milbank goes into detail recounting how Gingrich “changed forever the language of politics.” Gingrich quoted Mao saying, “Politics is war without blood.” And he repeatedly made charges such as the Democrats “‘trash’ America, indict the president and give the benefit of every doubt to Marxist regimes.”

In 1977, a year before Gingrich was first elected, Milbank reports that a Gallup poll found that 40% of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. After 15 years of his “relentless” attacks, that number was down to 18%. Gingrich then undermined congressional norms that encouraged compromise and constructive actions. During his legislative career, committee and sub-committee meetings dropped by nearly half. By 2017, they had dropped by almost 75%. The ability of Presidents to get laws passed was also undermined. Presidents’ legislative victories dropped from 73% of the agenda under Nixon. At the beginning of the Clinton term, he had a victory rate of 87% but by 2016, President Obama’s rate was 13%.

Another pivotal change occurred after the 1996 defeat of Bob Dole. Republican aide Margaret Tutwiler said, “We’re going to have to take on [board] the religious nuts.” A couple of decades later, White evangelicals were only 15% of the US population but about 40% of Trump’s voters.

And with the arrival of Karl Rove’s anti-gay “whisper campaign” against George W. Bush’s opponent, Ann Richards, personal attacks escalated dramatically. Another example of campaign lies was the attack on Sen. John McCain’s mental stability, and the claim he had “fathered an illegitimate black child.” Actually McCain had adopted a daughter from a Bangladesh orphanage.

Although I had been horrified by the behaviors of the rightwing, Milbank’s details provided me a much better understanding of how the views I’ve held allowed me to remain excessively optimistic. I used to believe that it was deindustrialization and the loss of economic opportunity (accelerated by Reagan’s job-killing Supply Side economics) that mostly fed the racism which propelled Trump into the White House. Now I’m convinced by Milbank’s evidence that it was racism – not economics – that spurred Trumpism.

Also, I had misremembered Mitch McConnell’s record in the 1990s. In 1993, McConnell joined Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms in defending the Confederate flag on the Senate floor, saying, “My roots … run deep in the Southern part of the country.” And he stood before a huge Confederate flag at a meeting of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

In 1997, McConnell said in a fundraising letter, “Help to protect our country from a potentially devastating nuclear attack.” And he alleged, Clinton’s White House was “sold for ILLEGAL FOREIGN CASH”

I’m assuming that readers of this blog will quickly understand how the Alt Facts spread by politicians like Gingrich are linked to today’s crises. By 2018, only 16% of Republicans trusted the media over Trump. In 2020, people who said they were “very happy” dropped to 14% compared to the previous low of 29%.

Two years later, the attempted kidnapping of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer showed how the worsening rhetoric was putting people in danger. In 2019, hate crimes increased by 30%, and over 18 months in 2020 and 2021, the FBI nearly tripled its domestic terrorism caseload. FBI director Christopher Wray said, “The violence in 2020 is unlike what we’ve seen in quite some time.” And who knows what the numbers are in the wake of Trump’s response to the subpoenaing of the Secret documents?

The 25-year rightwing siege and Trumpism has put our democracy at risk. Being from Oklahoma City, I’m increasingly worried about the chances of bloodshed. And I’m doubly concerned after reading The Destructionists.

In 1994, Vice President Al Gore explained, “The Republicans are determined to wreck Congress in order to control it – and then wreck a presidency in order to recapture it.” Now, Milbank concludes. “A quarter century after a truck bomb set by an antigovernment extremist … Republicans have lit a fuse on democracy itself.”

John Thompson is a historian and a retired teacher. He follows politics in Oklahoma closely. This article appeared first in the OkObserver.

The arc of the history of corporate school reform has been tragic; the survival of public education in a meaningful and equitable manner is in doubt in Oklahoma and much of the rest of the nation. To understand how and why this catastrophe happened, Tennessee provides perhaps the best case study.

This multi-generational assault on schools took off during the Reagan administration with its spin on A Nation at Risk, which misrepresented the report’s research. Back then, these attacks were largely propelled by two theologies: evangelical Christianity and a worship of the “Free Market.” Two decades later, corporate school reform was driven by Neoliberal ideology, and President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was pushed by both Republicans and Democrats and resisted by bipartisan grassroots movements of educators, parents, and students. I will always love President Obama, but during his administration the Race to the Top (RttT) undermined teachers unions, increased segregation, and drove holistic instruction and teachers (who resisted “drill and kill” teach-to-the-test malpractice) out of so many schools.

The damage was made much worse when the Trump administration further ramped up the campaign to use charter schools and vouchers to undermine public education. Now, Tennessee is again at the front of the rightwing’s “nationwide war on public schools.”

The Progressive Magazine’s Andy Spears explains that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s “point person on education policy is Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, a private, Christian evangelical school located in Michigan.” Arnn “compared public school systems to ‘enslavement’ and ‘the plague,’” and “accused teachers of ‘messing with people’s children,’ saying they are ‘trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,’”

Spears reported, “Lee announced in his State of the State address that he’d reached an agreement with Arnn for Hillsdale to operate up to 100 charter schools in Tennessee.” Gov. Lee defended Arnn’s rhetoric, saying, “I’m not going to rebut someone who was speaking about left-wing problems in public education in this country.”

Clearly, Tennessee schools, like those in Oklahoma and many other states, are facing a new set of dangerous threats, and they do so after being weakened by the RttT, just as the RttT’s failure was made more predictable due to the damage done by the doomed-to-fail NCLB, which was a legacy of coordinated attacks on public education initiated by the Reagan administration.

In order to resist the latest ideology-driven falsehoods, lessons must be learned from Tennessee’s rushed corporate school reforms. Race to the Bottom, by former Nashville Board member Will Pinkston is a great example of what we need to learn about the last two decades of assaults that have left public education so vulnerable. Pinkston begins with an apology:

I helped sell the public on the Obama administration’s multi-billion-dollar Race to the Top competition. In my home state of Tennessee, Race to the Top delivered $501 million to benefit public schools — and along the way spawned some of the most-damaging education policies in modern American history.

Pinkston explained that the RttT was driven by the same “irrational exuberance” that the true believers in the “Free Market” expressed. Briefly and predictably, the half billion dollar gamble produced quick, temporary gains in the reliable NAEP test scores. Soon afterwards, scores stagnated and/or declined; after ten years they dropped to the pre-RttT levels.

Worse, Tennessee’s early education program did something that would previously have been thought to be virtually impossible. High-quality early education has a record of producing significant, often incomparable benefits, for the dollars invested. However, graduates from Tennessee’s pre-k programs were found to have “lower academic scores, more behavioral problems and more special education referrals than their peers who did not attend.” The author of the report on the longterm outcomes, Dale Farran, worried that the state’s “pre-K overall has become too academic, especially when it is enveloped by the school system, and children don’t get enough time to play, share their thoughts and observations, and engage in meaningful, responsive interactions with caregivers.”

From the beginning, the Tennessee teachers union (as would also prove true in Oklahoma) knew that data-driven, corporate reformers were ignoring the overwhelming body of social science as to why their quick fixes would backfire. But, states received “up to $250,000 each to hire consultants (McKinsey & Co. and The Bridgespan Group) to help them fill out their applications,” and establish “reward and punish” systems. I must add that in conversation after conversation with these smart Big Data experts, who “didn’t know what they didn’t know” about schools, they refused to listen to educators like me and social scientists explaining why their hurried, punitive corporate approach would backfire.

And as it became obvious that their mandates were failing, the blame game was ramped up and outsiders like the “American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative think tank with ties to the Koch brothers,” successfully pushed for “stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights.”

Perhaps the biggest fiasco was teacher evaluations where 35 percent of the evaluation would be based on invalid, unreliable student-growth data and algorithms that were biased against teachers in high-poverty schools. The most absurd model for firing teachers used data from students who they had not taught!

Secondly, the rush to expand charter schools led to a dramatic over-expansion of schools run by Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) (as opposed to locally-led charters that might have been good partners.) CMOs were notorious for increasing economic segregation by not welcoming and/or “exiting” high-challenge students. Fortunately, Tennessee did a better job than Oklahoma of using the courts to push back on the worst of teacher evaluations and charters that would not retain higher-challenge students.

(On the other hand, pushback led by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister saved Oklahoma schools from a disaster which would have occurred if almost every student and teacher was held accountable for inappropriate Common Core test scores, as she pushed for more charter school accountability, and promoted high-quality early education.)

Based on his personal experience and scholarly research, Pinkston concluded, “intentionally or not, Race to the Top laid the groundwork for the attempted destruction of America’s most important democratic institution — public education.” And now, a huge increase in charter schools will advance a conservative curriculum which “relies on approaches developed by Arnn and other members of the 1776 Commission appointed by Trump to develop a ‘patriotic education’ for the nation’s schools.”

In response to the latest rightwing push described by The Progressive, Pinkston tweeted:

Fellow veterans of TN’s charter wars, just a friendly reminder: Long before Hillsdale, there was Great Hearts — which actually was pushed by Hillsdale. In the words of Nashville’s former top charter zealot Karl Dean: “It’s all connected.”

And that is why Oklahomans who are upset by Gov. Stitt’s attempts to expand charters and vouchers, ban Critical Race Theory, bully transgender students, and coerce educators into complying with these mandates should remember Tennessee’s history. Alone, those attacks would have been harmful. But today’s politics of destruction are on steroids. These assaults are more frightening because they are just the latest of destructive mandates, such as NCLB and the RttT, that have dramatically weakened public schools and undermined holistic and meaningful instruction.

During the last two decades, too many Neoliberal corporate reformers were able to “kneecap” public schools. Now we’re facing extremists who now want to go for the throat, and wipe out public education while it’s down.

You may recall that a young Black man named Julius Jones was sentenced to death for murder in Oklahoma. He insisted on his innocence, and his cause attracted national attention. At the last minute, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted his death sentence to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, was a teacher of Julius Jones. He writes:

I want to share two sets of lessons from the campaign by Justice for Julius that saved the life of my former student, Julius Jones. Despite a huge body of evidence that Julius is innocent of the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, it is unclear whether he still has a chance to be pardoned or paroled.
After the decision to not execute Julius Jones was made, I was able to rethink the reasons why he landed in Death Row. Reading and/or rereading court pleadings during the appeals process, I reached the conclusion that the 22-year battle for Julius’ life was mostly the result of two sets of decisions that were made quickly, without serious contemplation. Or, perhaps, there were no decisions made. Perhaps it was the history and the win-at-any-cost culture of the criminal justice system which prevented consideration of the testimony of Julius and the Jones family. After all, there was a long history of prosecutors trained by an Assistant District Attorney whose mantra was: “Every inmate in “Big Mac” (state prison) is guilty of the crime he was duly convicted of – or something else.”

This post will take a broad view of the conflict between the Oklahoma criminal justice system and a new generation committed to social justice. It will briefly review the key issues, first raised by the ABC News documentary, The Last Defense, that drew the attention of international news outlets regarding the question of whether Julius received a fair trial. And then it will describe the last months of the fight for Justice for Julius. A second post will summarize the most dubious of the prosecutors’ claims in the hope it offers more insights into what is wrong with our country’s criminal justice systems.

Julius was first represented by public defender Barry Albert, who was a great attorney with the ability to research and cross-examine the prosecutors’ dubious claims. But, Albert died suddenly, and he was replaced by lead attorney David McKenzie, who admitted that he was “terrified by this case due to my inexperience in death penalty litigation.” McKenzie later said in a sworn statement: “I believe that if I had been effective in establishing the true state of the evidence regarding Jordan and King, Mr. Jones would have been acquitted.”

Two decades later, McKenzie says he had been too critical of his cross-examination of Jordan.

The “Justice for Julius” campaign began at a time when criminal justice reform was remarkably bipartisan; for instance, Republican Governor Kevin Stitt appointed two of the three parole board members who recommended that the governor grant Jones clemency.

After the documentary, organizations and celebrities such as such as the Congressional Black Caucus; Kim Kardashian, the rapper Common; Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy; and football and basketball football starssuch as Baker Mayfield, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young, and Blake Griffin, whose father coached both Julius and Christopher Jordan, and who appeared in The Last Defense. Eventually, the list of supporters would include the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Black Lives Matter; a significant number of Republican legislators and former legislators like Kris Steele; the George Kaiser Family Foundation; the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice; the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; the American Conservative Union in Washington, D.C.; and the Faith and Freedom Coalition; and many other organizations. Also, the European Union and German ambassadors urged Gov. Stitt to accept the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation.

But the backlash against these efforts demonstrated the political power that prosecutors retained. In June, 2020, then-board member and former district court judge Allen McCall “threatened to seek criminal charges against then-executive director Steven Bickley,” demanding that Bickley help block Jones’ commutation hearing. Bickley took a leave of absence, criticized “threats to criminalize my public service,” and resigned.

Similarly, according to the Parole Board members’ response, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, filed an open records request seeking all references by board members to the terms, “Commutation,” “Commute,” “Conflict of interest,” “Criminal Justice Reform,” “Death penalty,” “District Attorney,” “God,” “Jesus,” and “Julius Jones.” Prater cited a 2019 article describing Luck as “having tears in his eyes as he spoke about the criminal justice system,” and condemned his association with admirable organizations such City Care and Whiz Kids.

Prater was represented by the Asst. D.A. who prosecuted Jones, and asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to block Luck and Doyle from Jones’ hearing. After Prater’s request was rejected, the newly appointed Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor unsuccessfully filed a similar request.

The Black Wall Street reported that Prater then requested a grand jury investigation into the Pardon and Parole board. The judge who approved it is married to the prosecutor in the Jones case. Gov. Stitt criticized Prater’s “latest political stunt to intimidate the Pardon and Parole Board and obstruct the Constitutional process as high-profile cases that his office prosecuted are being considered.” And some of the younger, more progressive supporters of Justice for Julius started an initiative petition drive for a grand jury to investigate Prater.

Finally, The Oklahoman reported that Prater released tapes of 600 phone calls by Jones using another death row inmate’s PIN number. According to an investigator, “Among those called were ‘people in the sports and entertainment industries’ and podcast hosts.” The implication was that the calls were evidence that Justice for Julius was a profit-making enterprise.

In the autumn of 2021, the state restarted executions that had been put on hold after Oklahoma’s three-drug execution protocol caused the “botched executions” of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner in 2014 and 2015. The first renewed execution of John Grant caused him “to vomit, convulse and curse as he was killed.” Even so, Julius was scheduled for execution on November 18.

The state’s Pardon and Parole Board again voted 3-1 to recommend that Stitt grant clemency to Jones. But, according to the Black Wall Street Times, Attorney General O’Connor, who Stitt saw as a mentor, urged Stitt to push forward on the execution of Julius. He was said to be basing his advice on “closure for the [Howell] family,” and “Julius’s past legal troubles as a young teenager, rather than the facts of the case.”

As the execution date approached, Stitt said he was praying over his decision, and he would make no further statement. He met with the Howell family but refused to meet with anyone in the Jones family. By the day before the scheduled execution, the words and body language of Julius’ supporters indicated to me that they retained little hope of saving his life.

As the clock ticked down, even though the Justice for Julius vigils had been nonviolent and respectful, staff at the Capitol were told to close their offices and take time off, and barricades were put upbetween the Oklahoma History Center parking lot where demonstrators gathered, and the Governor’s mansion.

The last week’s vigils exemplified the contradictions in Oklahoma’s 21st century culture. As I talked with my Representative, Mauree Turner, the nation’s first nonbinary, Muslim, Black legislator, the anti-mask, anti-vaccination demonstrators walked by, proclaiming their belief in “Freedom!” Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, who taught in my former classroom at Centennial Mid-High after I retired, described his proposed legislation to expand full-service community schools. My student and basketball buddy, and Julius’ best friend, Jimmie Lawson, reenacted my clumsiness on the basketball court.

On the eve of the scheduled execution, the poetry slam at the Ponyboy, about a mile from the History Center, was cancelled, and this statement was posted:

“Given the intense anxiety and frustration I and others in our community are experiencing, if Stitt has not granted clemency by this evening we will be putting the slam on hold in favor of an intimate night of reading our poetry and focusing on healing.”

The New York Times reported:

The Oklahoma City Public Schools estimated that more than 1,800 students across 13 schools participated in walkouts to support Mr. Jones on Wednesday. The district said it “supports our students’ rights to peaceful assembly and their freedom of expression

Even more students walked out the next day.

Also on Wednesday, Rev. Keith Jossell, Julius’ spiritual advisor, seemed to indicate that there wasn’t much hope for tomorrow, but Julius’ supporters should heed his call for the continuation of their campaign for justice. He said:

Julius is grateful to god. That he chose him to be able to be the spotlight so that you would understand what is wrong with the Department of Corrections in the state of Oklahoma. … This is an opportunity to try to start a new Oklahoma. If you’re a business and you think you may want to relocate to Oklahoma, look at what we do to our citizens! If you are a family and you think this might be a good Bible Belt place to raise your family, look at what we do to people in Oklahoma!

Madeline Jones was not allowed to hug Julius. He was chained down and separated from her by a glass partition. She seemed especially exhausted, saying that whatever happens tomorrow, the movement must continue. Mrs. Jones also said, “And if you think Julius is guilty, give him a fair trial!”

On November 18, less than four hours before the scheduled execution, my wife and I were about to join the huge vigil at the Capitol. Then we heard the news:

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has spared the life of high-profile death row inmate Julius Jones. He announced, “After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” But “Stitt ordered that Jones shall never be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon or parole for the rest of his life.”

It will take time to determine whether the Constitution actually gives the governor that much power. Also, given Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister’s support for clemency for Julius, after switching from the Republican to the Democratic Party, it remains to be seen how this will affect her campaign for governor against Stitt. I believe it and her defense of public schools will likely put her in the Governors Mansion.

Clearly, Mrs. Jones was correct in saying that regardless of the outcome of the campaign to “Free Julius Jones!,” it will have a significant effect on 21st century Oklahoma.

The dramatic weeks that preceded Julius’ commutation drew national and international coverage, as the Kyle Rittenhouse, the organizers of the Charlottesville violence, and the killers of Ahmaud Arbery trials were coming to a close. And commentators often expressed surprise that this multi-racial, cross-generational and often bipartisan movement occurred in Oklahoma.

I would especially recommend Rachel Maddow’s commentary and video of the celebrations which placed Justice for Julius in the context of direct actions across the world. I especially loved her exuberant declaration:

This was outside the prison where Julius Jones is incarcerated right after the news broke. You hear the crowd chanting “‘We`re going to be all right.’ This was Oklahoma this week! This was Oklahoma today!”

#2

As ABC’s The Last Defense reported after the 1999 murder of a white father by a Black carjacker, “fear was almost palpable” in Edmond. Moreover, this was a time when the Oklahoma County District Attorney, the late Bob Macy, was listed as one of America’s top-five deadliest prosecutors. As was explained in the previous post, this meant that there were not enough experienced death penalty defense lawyers to meet the demand. Julius Jones’ lead attorney, David McKenzie, told ABC that he lacked death penalty experience and had an overwhelming case load. (I appeared several times in the documentary.)

The Last Defense offered a compelling narrative that connected the evidence in ways that the jurors or the appellate courts never heard. For instance, it quoted a juror who explained:

And this thing has weighed on me for a long time. What happened was, several of us from the jury were getting on an elevator. This was well before deliberations. And one of the jurors said, “Well, they should just take that n—– out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail.” It didn’t matter what happened, this was a black man that was on trial for murder.

Conversely, the jury foreman told ABC that, in a case like that one, you “go with your heart more than anything else.” The juror trusted “what you felt in your gut.” When delivering the verdict, the juror “felt right.”

To the contrary, we at John Marshall H.S. had thought the following scenario was most likely: As defense attorney Amanda Bass later explained, “Unfortunately in our criminal justice system … the first person to be interrogated and to talk to the police who tells the police the story can be the one who gets the deal.”

So, this second post will focus on the main witnesses that the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office claimed to believe, as opposed to listening to Julius and his family.

On July 28, 1999, a neighbor of Christopher Jordan, saw him driving a car with an unidentified person with a red bandanna. They followed Paul Howell, his sister, and his two daughters home, where he was fatally shot during a carjacking. According to the Oklahoma County district attorneys’ virtually unchallenged argument, that was evidence that Julius committed the murder and Jordan drove the getaway car!?!?

But, in 2021, Julius’s federal public defender, Amanda Bass, explained to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board that Jordan and Jones were almost the same size and weight, and Prater said that the person who accompanied Jordan was a half a head taller, more muscular and bigger. And, Ladell “Day Day” King was 6 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Jordan.

Jordan, like Julius and his brother and sister, were students of mine. I also played basketball with all of them, almost daily. That’s why I knew each of them so well that I was confident that the hundreds of students and teachers at John Marshal H.S were correct in believing Jordan, not Julius, should have been the prime suspect.

Jordan, who was known as “Westside,” told the Edmond investigators five different stories as the interrogators kept directing him back to the narrative that would make him “a better witness.”“Day Day” King had been a confidential police informant since the mid-1980s. The Edmond detective who handled him said he informed the Oklahoma City Police that “we needed to find my informant Ladell King.” The detective further explained that King “had the pulse on all auto thefts in the Oklahoma metro,” and he had told King that “his cooperation would then be shared with the District Attorney and he could get deals on his own charges or avoid charges altogether.”

During the subsequent investigation, King’s girlfriend told a detective that she and King “were trying to get the reward money” for helping to arrest the shooter. She was not asked about that statement during the trial. King was not charged and received a significant reduction in another sentence.

The second confidential informant was Kermit Lottie, who had cooperated with the Oklahoma City police since the early 1990s. He had assisted in the prosecution of two persons accused of murder and who were sentenced to death, but later exonerated.

According to the prosecution, it was a coincidence that the police stumbled across their confidential informant; an Edmond detective testified that the Oklahoma City police “just wanted to get an idea of what the area looked like.” And, at trial, the Asst. D.A. said, “By fate, by chance, [the police] pull up into Kermit Lottie’s garage and start talking to him.”

Under questioning by the prosecutor, Lottie denied he had made any requests of the D.A.’s office. However, two days before, he had written a letter to the Asst. D.A. reminding her of the “big time evidence” he had provided in the Paris Powell and Yancy Douglas death penalty case. (Powell and Douglas, were the nation’s 137th and 138thconvicts on death row to be exonerated; they served 16 years in prison and received $3.1 million in compensation. The federal appeals court criticized the Oklahoma County prosecutor for “knowing use of false testimony.”) Lottie also offered to help the prosecutor in return for “a little help for myself.”

Just three days after Julius was sentenced to death, Lottie received “very significant” help in reducing his federal sentence after the Edmond detective asked for leniency because Lottie was a “key witness” in the case against Julius.

The police officers’ and the prosecutors’ presentation of the testimony of Jordan, and the two professional informants were the biggest drivers of the case against Julius. But their arguments were doubly powerful because the overworked and inexperienced defense attorney’s failed to investigate their claims. And as explained in the previous post, they did not investigate the four inmates who said Jordan confessed/bragged about being the murderer, or competently cross-examine witnesses.

The defense attorney’s equally important, questionable decisions, to not bring Julius and the Jones to the stand, were also due to their failure to interview Julius’ girlfriend and Mrs. Jones’ friend who dropped her at the Jones’ home where she said they were about to have a spaghetti dinner. Neither of them could confirm the claims that Julius was at his family’s home when the murder occurred, but contrary to McKenzie’s understanding, neither of them made statements about where he was at the time of the murder. (emphasis mine) In other words, neither statement undermined the credibility of Jones or his family when they said Julius was with them at 9:30pmwhich was the time when the murder occurred. (And, McKenzie could not find the letter that he remembered as Julius telling his girlfriend he was on the south side, not his parents’ home. Neither could he remember the investigator, who everyone on the team agreed was incompetent, ever providing a written record of his interviews of potential witnesses.)

In the 1980’s, I extensively researched the incredibly corrupt Oklahoma County criminal justice system. Prohibition had not been repealed until the late 1950’s, and bribing the Supreme Court was routine into the 1960’s, while the prison system’s brutality and corruption prompted the 1973 McAlester prison riot. I concluded that progress began in the late 1970s and the 1980s; progress may had slowed during the Macy years, but I was still shocked by its behavior in front page headline cases. As was common in much of the nation, the chances of an innocent person being convicted were higher in high-profile capital cases, especially when the prosecution relied on confidential informants.

When I spoke to District Attorney David Prater a few years ago, he seemed to know little about the Jones case, but his opinions were driven by his respect for the Asst. District Attorney who prosecuted the case.

I especially admired the bipartisan leaders of the criminal justice movement who had brought Oklahoma to the start of what promised to be transformational improvement. But, I suspect that the Oklahoma experience followed the same pattern which is common across America. On one hand, District Attorneys believe that can’t keep their power unless they win 90% or more of their cases through a plea bargain. Defendants supposedly will not plead guilty unless they know that prosecutors are almost certain to win. That makes for a culture of winners and losers; so D.A.s must remain the “biggest bear in the woods.”

On the other hand, it seems like the anger generated by Trumpism has turned a harsh winner-take-all mentality into a commitment to cruelty. Especially when a multi-racial movement unites to defend a Black man, too many believers in “law and order” are more committed to defeating their opponents, believing whatever spin the prosecutors deliver.

Before the D.A.s full scale assault on Julius’ quest for clemency, I thought Gov. Stitt would split the difference in a way he hoped to satisfy the 60% of Oklahomans (and 49% of Republicans) who know of Julius’ case, and believe he should receive clemency, according to poll of 500 voters. As The Black Wall Street Times reported, “The poll comes after former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter called on the Jones family to die quietly, and as Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater refuses to turn over Jones’ case file.”

But I was less hopeful that Stitt would pardon or parole him. It never occurred to me that his compromise would include a ban a pardon or parole by any other governor or parole board. I suspect he chose to avoid the debacle which the execution could prompt, especially if was another botched one, while minimizing anger from his Trumpian supporters who have such a taste for blood.

Finally, I had read about the change of statutes and rules during the War on Drugs that made it unlikely that evidence of innocence would be allowed as grounds for an appeal. But I had not fully appreciated the ways that today “courts were all prevented by strict and procedural
bars from reviewing the full merits of Julius’s claims.”

I was dismayed by the logic of the Court of Criminal Appeals, which I had long respected. I could have agreed with the Court that some of the circumstantial evidence was valid – if it had been investigated. The Court said the evidence against Julius was “damning,” even though I could not find any solid evidence in their statements that had been adequately analyzed. It concluded that “King was not involved in the Howell murder in any way,” even though a fair trial would have required something that didn’t happen – an investigation of confidential informants’ credibility and participation in the crime. I would hope the Court would agree that today the evidence points to Julius’ innocence and ask what that says about our appeals process.

Historian and former teacher John Thompson sat in on three different panels about the reopening of schools. He heard the concerns of leading educators and medical experts. The latter were all in favor of masking and vaccinations, but the educators were cautious about making powerful people angry.

The Oklahoma state legislature has banned mask mandates and vaccinations are out of the question. The medical experts stressed the importance of the measures that have been banned.

Legislators in states like Oklahoma are putting the lives of children, families, and communities at risk. Unnecessarily.

John Thompson reports that the crusade against teaching racism critically is in full swing in Oklahoma. Rightwing legislators can’t seem to understand why it’s okay to encourage students to think critically about the terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City but to forbid them to think critically about racism.

Who would have thunk it?

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, at the site of the Murrah Building where 168 people were murdered by Timothy McVeigh, has an exhibit that asks questions like:

“Do you see a relationship from the violence that occurred on this site and the events happening in our world today?” It offers conversation prompts such as “What are the pros and cons of having a domestic terrorism law?” and “Does social media play a part?”

Isn’t that what leftist teachers ask when using critical race theory (CRT) in order to shame white people?